Dir. Bharat Nalluri
(PG-13) ★ ★ ★ ★

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day comes as a surprise. It is a romantic farce, set in the 1930s and styled as if from the era, but it becomes something richer. Director Bharat Nalluri, working from a fine screenplay by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy, based on a novel by Winifred Watson, digs deep into the material to reveal an undercurrent of sadness and the foreboding of a nation on the eve of its entry into World War II. Underneath the comically mannered performances and romantic entanglements, this is a film about class, about loss, about gender, and yes, about love.

Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is an English governess, but not a very good one. She was fired from her last position, and several more prior. But if she’s poor at her job we can sympathize. We learn that a tragedy during the First World War forced her to change her plans; this is not the life she counted on. There is a running gag in which Pettigrew struggles to eat, but finds that food is always just out of reach. This is humorous but also establishes the current state of her life; for her the stakes are high, no less than the difference between survival and starvation.

In her desperation, she connives her way into a position as social secretary for a vain American singer/actress, Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), and her first minutes on the job involve cleaning up after Delysia’s romantic indiscretions. The ingenue has three lovers: Nick (Mark Strong), the owner of the nightclub where she works and a cold-hearted charmer she can’t resist; Phil (Tom Payne), the son of a producer who can secure Delysia the lead role in a show on the West End; and Michael (Lee Pace), a penniless musician who is hopelessly in love with her.

The early scenes are pleasingly manic, a fast-paced whirl of close calls and fast thinking as Delysia tries to dismiss one lover under the nose of another. Adams shines especially brightly in the early going; her high-pitched chirp is reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe, and her skill at broad comedy recalls Lucille Ball.

As the film settles in, it develops a darker subtext. War is on the horizon. Boutique mannequins come dressed in the latest fashions — finished with gas masks, the must-own accessory. The sight of military planes overhead causes an excited stir in naive youngsters, but not in Miss Pettigrew, who says with ache, “They don’t remember the last one.” According to the filmmakers, Watson’s novel did not reference the war, but it is a welcome addition to the story, giving it added weight. It makes the film not only farce, but the last hurrah of a generation nearing a loss of innocence.

Nalluri and his crew give the film vivid visual life, even though the story takes place in one day and is limited to a handful of locations. The costumes by Michael O’Connor, the production design by Sarah Greenwood (Atonement), and the cinematography of John de Borman are especially worthy of note. Consider the scene where Michael walks towards the camera and towards Delysia in a luxuriously decorated dressing room. It’s a simple shot, and brief, but it evokes a classical era; actor Lee Pace becomes Cary Grant before our eyes.

The film’s best scene comes soon thereafter, and is utterly perfect: Delysia and Michael perform “If I Didn’t Care,” a love ballad that has special meaning to both — he sings with longing, and her voice cracks with emotion. Using closeups and slow pans, Nalluri takes us into their insulated world, and the surrounding nightclub audience seems to fall away — except for Miss Pettigrew, who the film cuts to for reaction shots that are equally filled with feeling. The lives of these women — their loves, losses, and regrets — are revealed in this scene.

McDormand and Adams are well cast in their roles. McDormand, with her unflagging dignity and intelligence, keeps the dowdy, prim Miss Pettigrew from drifting into caricature. She speaks familiar wisdom (“Your heart knows the truth, Delysia. Trust it, for life is short”), but they’re more than platitudes. As spoken by McDormand, they’re lived-in; we sense history and experience in the words.

Adams, as Delysia, is ostensibly a comic foil, but is much more than that. Her Delysia is more self-aware than she at first seems. When we learn of her humble roots, we recognize that her megawatt smile is itself a performance, part of the delicate veneer of glamour she puts on to will herself into show business, or else end up on the street. Adams’s performance works on both levels; we see the blitheness of her girlish flitting, and the melancholy just underneath.

Adams announced herself as a notable talent three years ago with her Oscar-nominated performance in the little-seen indie Junebug. She has since appeared in Enchanted, Charlie Wilson’s War, and this, and in her performances I have yet to see her strike a false note (this refers both to her acting and her impeccable singing voice). She surely has an Academy Award in her future, and given the buzz for her next film, this fall’s upcoming Doubt, it may be the very near future indeed.