Home > Film > Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)

The question immediately coming to mind is a simple one. What exactly is a fairy story? It would be rather trite just to list all the stories which feature supernatural creatures like, well, fairies. . . So let’s offer a more sweeping suggestion that a fairy story is one in which there are elements of magic with the possibility of enchantment. In the olden days when we used to sit around the fire for warmth as the night drew in, we would tell ourselves these tales. They were a part of our oral tradition. This is not to confuse them with myths and legends because they more often represent themselves as having elements of truth. Both those who tell and those who listen spellbound, know a fairy story is not intended to be taken as a literal truth. And in this lies the reason for their slow transformation from a purely adult form of fiction to tales we tell our children, to the new varieties of story we come back to as adults. Some like Pan’s Labyrinth or The Company of Wolves are modern parables of our time, intended as polemics or the delivery system for moral improvement. Others like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day are more “harmless”, being intended as mere romantic dalliances through which we can distract ourselves from the rigours of the world.

Frances McDormand fending off the real social secretary

It would be difficult to find someone not familiar with Cinderella. The story seems to have embedded itself in cultures around the world as an inspiration to the oppressed to have a little more confidence in themselves and find a prince(ss). This film is a variation on the theme as we see the story from the point of view of a slightly surprising fairy godmother. The titular Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is an intelligent woman who finds herself out of joint in London, a city on the eve of war. Life has passed her by. Her first and only love was killed in the trenches in WW I. No-one else has ever moved into this clergyman daughter’s circle, condemning her to the drudgery of playing governess to families she dislikes. Having lost three jobs in quick succession, the most recent because she disapproved of her employer’s drinking, the employment agency decides to drop her as unsuited to the life of service. In desperation, she steals the business card of a new female client, thinking she too wants a governess.

Amy Adams who is really a Grubb from America

So, by accident, she ends up in the flat occupied by Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams). This is a young American woman who’s one lover away from destitution in London. The flat she currently occupies is owned by a fairly sleazy nightclub owner, Nick (Mark Strong) who lets her sing with the band. From this platform, she’s met the piano player, Michael (Lee Pace) and Phil (Tom Payne) who has within his gift the leading role in a new West End musical. She sleeps with all three because she’s lonely and ambitious, but is equally exploited by two of her lovers. In the midst of all this superficiality, Edythe (Shirley Henderson) dictates outerwear fashion and her potential husband, Joe (Ciaran Hinds) designs lingerie for the well-to-do.

Ciaran Hinds making a living in women's underwear

At any moment, war with Germany may be declared and mannequins in fashionable shop windows sport the latest designs in gas masks. The social bubble that has carried people through the depression of the 1930s and into relative prosperity is about to be punctured. All this social magic will disappear as the Blitz begins. At this cusp between peace and war, its occurs to these people that they should take decisions for their futures. The catalyst for this fairly momentous change is Miss Pettigrew, whose drive to find employment gives her desperate energy. She has known hardship and pain. Hers is the voice of experience that, when needed, will speak the truth.

Lee Pace as a penniless piano-player

Perhaps that’s where the real magic comes into play. She can only find her way into these people’s lives by dishonestly claiming to be sent by an employment agency but, once in place, she has a unique opportunity to provoke others into hard decisions. It’s inherently ironic that a liar should become the mouthpiece of truth. The script is a pleasing balance between hope and despair. David Magee and Simon Beaufoy have done a good job in recapturing the mood of the original novel by Winifred Watson. The direction from Bharat Nalluri is light but sure. The result is entertaining in a way only possible in a fairy story. The right people must come together in the ending but, on the way, we must see beyond the external appearances for the reality beneath. The poster says it all with Joe’s lingerie keeping London’s socialites looking good, and two women from different generations and cultural backgrounds finding common cause in the pursuit of happiness — physical and economic security is less feasible given the outbreak of war. For the record, unlike the original Cinderella, events are largely confined to a single day and the morning after. The oppression necessary to trigger the acceptance of change comes from within. These people are all unhappy in the roles they have chosen for themselves. They can only find freedom when they give up the false dreams and decide to be true to themselves. Put like this, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day may sound a bit trite but, onscreen, it produces a heart-warming response.

As a final thought, I’m a sucker for the piano played well and, in the midst of some good big band numbers and slightly anachronistic jazz, there’s some great piano. Thanks, perhaps, to Paul Englishby who wrote the original score.

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