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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Costumes pass for plot in WWII update

For an obscure tale of a virginal London governess who discovers her true calling running interference for a giddy night-club singer, British homemaker Winifred Watson's 1938 novel, knocked off in six weeks while she washed dishes under the looming clouds of World War II, has enjoyed a lively renaissance. Republished by the female-oriented Persephone Press, the novel has been retooled by director Bharat Nalluri as a pert little period costume drama casted, crewed, and crafted entirely by Brits—except for its all-American leads. Don't get me wrong: There's almost nothing Frances McDormand (as the brown-clad nanny) can't do with a blank stare, and Amy Adams (dimpling away as the chaotic flibbertigibbet Delysia Lafosse) is rapidly emerging as our wittiest ingénue since Goldie Hawn. But watching McDormand stretch out diphthongs, all I could think was: "What, the Emilys Blunt and Watson weren't available?" What passes for plot is cocktail parties in floor-length Deco gowns, interrupted by the occasional German bomb and the obligatory shopping excursion in which Miss P. gets her extreme makeover and gently instructs her confused young boss in basic self-respect. Were Watson alive today, her comic verve would likely intimidate Diablo Cody. But what makes her novel a delight is its guilelessly homoerotic subtext. By downplaying that, the movie argues the case for Watson's innocent sensuality—and against its own worldly update.

 
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