Oscar-winner Frances McDormand stars as Guinevere Pettigrew, a pre-World War II, British governess, or glorified nanny, though not a very popular one. She's been kicked out of several homes, until her employer is forced to finally fire her service.
Pettigrew becomes homeless, penniless, and has to scrounge for food from a soup kitchen, off the streets, or out of the garbage. She spends most of her days in a train station, staring into space and starving. She needs a little rescue, if even for a day.
But she can't wait for a white knight. She has to grab opportunity for herself. She does so by imposing on the likes of Delysia LaFosse, an aspiring actress who is vying for a role in the new London play called "Pile on the Pepper."
Delysia is in need of a governess to help around the house. Delysia seems a bit bubbly-brained and self-centered. Pettigrew doesn't have too much trouble convincing Delysia that she can do the job. In fact, Delysia has no clue that Pettigrew is merely a ragamuffin.
When Delysia asks Pettigrew to wake her boy, Pettigrew's Mary Poppins instincts kick in, and Pettigrew goes up to the bedroom immediately. Delysia recognizes, as we do, that despite her appearance, Pettigrew can be good at her job.
Pettigrew rushes up to the bedroom to wake the boy named Phil. Pettigrew barges in full Poppin mode, ready to scold Delysia's child for still being in bed and not getting up when she commands. Pettigrew pulls back the covers and discovers not Delysia's child, but a fully nude man, post coitus.
Besides looking like Oliver Twist's mom, like someone cleaned the streets of the dirtiest British back alley literally with Pettigrew's entire body, Pettigrew is a prim and proper lady, conservative and somewhat dignified. The idea that a man who is certainly not Delysia's child, nor her husband, can be naked and aroused in her bed is shocking.
Pettigrew goes back down stairs to scold Delysia, or in the least separate herself from this scandal. Yes, there is a scandal, or the potential for one. You see, Phil is not just some high society pretty boy whom Delysia met at random and brought to bed. No! He's the producer of the West End play for which she's auditioning. In fact, his naked presence may be part of that audition.
Yet, that's not even the scandal. The real scandal is that Delysia's actual boyfriend, a club owner named Nick for whom she sings, is coming over. Pettigrew asks Delysia to tell this Nick to simply come back some other time. Delysia says she can't do that because they're in Nick's apartment right now.
The sheets that Phil's naked body is moistening belong to Nick. On top of all that, the man with whom Delysia is really in love, a pianist named Michael, barges in with an ultimatum.
Pettigrew becomes completely disillusioned and now just wants to leave. Pettigrew merely wanted a simple job to give her enough shillings to afford a little bread and butter, or perhaps some tea and a krumpet. Instead, she's thrust into the middle of Delysia's crisis of juggling these various men, two of whom only for her own self-aggrandizement.
Delysia, nevertheless, is not a bad person. Oscar-nominee Amy Adams ("Junebug" and "Enchanted") plays Delysia with sweet affectation, but also with perfect understanding of the time she's in. As Delysia verbally references Hollywood actresses like Mae West and Olivia de Havilland, Adams physically embodies them with a wholly winsome wit, charm, and sagacity.
At the end of this period piece, Adams sings a rendition of the Oscar-nominated songwriter Jack Lawrence called "If I Didn't Care." By then, though, you're so in love with her that when you see who's she's singing about, you can't help but root for all of them to fall in love too.
Even though the film is set on the cusp of the second World War and the heels of the Great Depression, there is nothing depressing by this romantic comedy, which is a slight throwback to the Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.
This film doesn't have as much of the physical comedy, but the script is so sharply written with enough gags to keep you giggling or at least smiling throughout the breath of this story. Scenes like Delysia's subterfuges about her career or Michael's ultimatum, which is delivered by Lee Pace ("Soldier's Girl" and "Pushing Daisies"), are all memorable.
The only criticism is the film was totally predictable. You knew where it was going and who was going to end up with whom by the closing credits. The acting performances are so entertaining, though, that this doesn't detract. The characters carry you.
The characters themselves play off classic, conflicting, classist paradigms. There's Pettigrew who is poverty-stricken and Delysia who is seemingly wealthy. Pettigrew is sheltered. Delysia is sophisticated and worldly, if not excessive. Pettigrew holds her head down and has basic, moral values. Delysia is flamboyant and liberal, if not wanton.
But there are pros and cons with each woman's experience and point of view. This fact becomes clearer after Pettigrew's makeover, which is somewhat Pygmalion in nature, only with a little lesbian undertone, as Delysia is substituted for Henry Higgins, unknowingly. McDormand even resembles Julie Andrews a bit, but with longer, scruffier hair. It's not exactly "My Fair Lady," the musical remake of Pygmalion, but a similar feeling sweeps.
Similar themes arise about status and the superficiality that people ascribe to things, and how all of that affects love and human relationships, or even if they should. The film explores pretenses that people put on, some to survive.
The vision of Emmy-nominated director Bharat Nalluri brings out these themes, by way of great acting performances, and also makes great use of the production design by Oscar-nominated set decorators Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer ("Atonement" and "Pride & Prejudice"). Most of the sets were of course gorgeous, but also very confining. The sets were small and very much like stage theater.
For some directors, this can be challenging, especially when many of the Oscar-nominated and even Oscar-winning films make use of wide-open locations for expansive views and voluminous pictures. Yet here, Nalluri embraces the claustrophobic spaces. A scene inside a small bathroom is not awkward, as Nalluri is fond of pushing into his subjects by camera dolly and accomplishing warm close-ups and flattering medium shots.
One well acted and well directed scene comes during Pettigrew's makeover when Shirley Henderson ("Bridget Jones Diary" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets") who plays Edyth Dubarry learns Pettigrew's secret and blackmails her with it. Both actresses are either scared or sly, and suspicious, and in a single shot, Nalluri captures that essence by capturing both women in a mirror and re-focusing so you see both reflections as clear and blurry.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for partial nudity
Running Time: 1 hr. and 32 mins.