In 1939 London, Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is out of work. She’s been a governess for several families, but they always let her go, citing her inflexibility. Her latest firing is the last straw for her employment agency, from which she is sent off with a stern “Good day!”
Needless to say, she isn’t having anything of the sort. But neither is Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), a bubbly, half-helpless actress whose name and address Miss Pettigrew nicks from her employment agent’s desk. It’s not a governess the giddy Delysia needs, at least not in the traditional sense; it’s a strong backbone and a push in the right direction. She’s juggling three men, each of whom offers something she wants: nightclub owner Nick (Mark Strong) lends her his fancy flat and a singing job; young theater producer Phil (Tom Payne) is casting a new play and is easily infatuated; and pianist Michael (Lee Pace) is a passionate, penniless fellow with two tickets to New York on a cruise ship for which he—and an as yet unannounced singer—will be the entertainment. Whatever will Delysia do?
If you’ve ever seen a movie, you know the answer. Surprises are not the point here, but they don’t pretend to be. You know that at some point, Miss Pettigrew’s deception will be uncovered, but the simple fact that this isn’t the film’s big revelation is lovely. We’re in more graceful, somewhat old-fashioned territory, in which the traditional, grounded older woman and the flighty lass with her troublesome modern sensibilities need to rub off on each other. And so they do, as the film contemplates friendship, change, love, ambition—and, to a lesser and almost out of place degree, the facets of love during wartime.
Delysia may be the star of her own universe, and Adams the current charismatic belle of the Hollywood ball, but this film comes to life when Pace’s Michael is at her side (as well as, it must be noted, when the always-fantastic Shirley Henderson’s malevolent fashion maven, Edythe Dubarry, is onscreen). Big-hearted and impulsive, self-deprecating and romantic, Pace steals the show, whether he’s telling the story of how he wound up in prison or playing a piano part that acts as a duet with a brief, impassioned speech of Miss Pettigrew’s.
Were the film far less conventional in its pairings, you might consider these two, with their big hearts and fierce ideals, the most likely couple (leaving aside the obvious affection between the female leads). But this sweet throwback has in mind a more traditional ending for Miss Pettigrew—an ending that’s made less believable by the presence of McDormand, whose capable earthiness seems destined for less fairy-tale finales. It’s a tiny sour note that falls after the fun of seeing Delysia take a rather different (and very right for her) path.