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Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day: An Underrated Period Drama Gem

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is a glitzy snapshot into 1930’s high society just before the Second World War broke out; a story of impromptu rags to riches, glamorous nightclubs and indecisive passion. A film many years in the making that stars Frances McDormand and Amy Adams and based on the novel of the same name by Winifred Watson. At the very beginning we meet Miss Pettigrew, a dowdy ex-nanny who has been fired yet again for speaking her mind. She is about as far away from the world she is about to enter as it is possible to be, eating only what she can get  and living out of a suitcase. Yet when an address for the post of Social Secretary to Miss Delicia LaFosse is left unguarded on the table at an employment agency, Miss Pettigrew seizes the opportunity to change her life.

She arrives at Miss Delicia’s flat, a young wannabe starlet caught between three suitors, and finds herself caught up in the world of indulgence, performances and romance. After a transformation from Governess to Social Secretary, with accompanying wardrobe changes,  Miss Pettigrew is ready to shine. While her prim no-nonsense demeanor cost her three jobs previously, it strangely allows her to fit right into this subset of society. While attempting to disentangle the love life and the career of Delicia she finds herself stumbling into her own love story. Being a genuine person surrounded by pretenders, she catches the eye of a lingerie designer named Joe with problems of his own. This gentler connection tempers the wilder, more dramatic love affairs in Delicia’s life.


The film showcases the dying world of the Swing Era. The tawdry escapism that buckled under the looming threat of war and the poverty that followed. It is a fast paced comedy-drama that nevertheless has room for a few quiet reflective moments. The film’s unique sense of humor is ever present as Miss Pettigrew and Delicia get themselves in and out of scrape after scrape. True to its spirit, the music, as befitting a film set in this time is wild, energetic and composed mainly of syncopated Jazz. Yet under all of this excitement hides the sadder story of Miss Pettigrew’s past and Delicia’s real situation. You are made to feel the elusive nature of fortune and it becomes clear that the two women are not as different as they might first appear.


Both women delight with humorous and over-the-top performances. Lee Pace also stars alongside a questionable but endearing attempt at an English accent, as the charming and penniless pianist who seeks to win Delicia’s heart. Out of her many prospects he loves her truly, not just the woman she pretends to be. By the end, the message of the film is clear, while the fantasy and sparkle of this glamorous lifestyle is exciting it is also false. It is love that is truly important.


It takes elements of Cinderella and Mary Poppins and creates something entirely unique. It is a story about second chances, of love lost and regained, of naive youthfulness juxtaposed against world weariness, poverty against excess. You may choose to take it at face value or you may not. Either way Miss Pettigrew is an entertaining, sharp and intelligent film to delight the senses.


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“You had me at hello.”


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“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My

feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me

to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Photos: Momentum Pictures


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By on December 12th, 2014

About Elinor Cackett

Elinor is a writer and semi-recent graduate of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. She has been writing ever since she could hold a pen but her love affair with fiction started when the entirety of David Eddings’ 'The Belgariad' was read to her at age four. She currently has a couple of books and half a dozen short stories on the go. She spends her free time writing, analysing media and knitting very colourful scarves.

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1 thought on “Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day: An Underrated Period Drama Gem”

  1. I love this film. It was smart, funny, gentle, and adult. I just rooted for Miss Pettigrew from the start and she never faltered. Good for Frances McDormand for getting it made.

    I’d never heard of Winnifred Watson before but I’m going to have to look up some of her books.


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