At the center of Bharat Nalluri’s 1930s romance are three women as different as cartoon animals. Spinster Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is a wet mouse, a wretched creature who makes your skin crawl for the beaming actress imprisoned under her flat-footed march, frizzy hair, and brown rags so ugly even a burlap sack would shun them. Broke and starving, Miss Pettigrew sneaks her way into the employ of American actress Delysia Lafosse’s (Amy Adams, all giggles, satin, and marabou) London digs. Or to be more precise, the grand apartment rented by and paid for one of Delysia’s admirers, lured in by the way her boa twitches like a tail when she bounces down the street. Deylsia’s insistent that Miss Pettigrew become her social secretary—not just because her three boyfriend juggling act demands it, but to compete with “rabbit-nosed” competitor Charlotte Warren (Christina Cole). But standing between Miss Pettigrew and the makeover she never dared to dream of is fashion editrix Edythe Dubarry (Shirley Henderson), a severe chain-smoker with the voice of a squirrel and the polish of a woman who knows good grooming is her best feature. After cheating on her fiancée, Edythe blackmails her into reconciling with smooth-talking lingerie designer Joe (Ciaran Hinds), outraging Miss Pettigrew’s moral code and dashing her hopes that Joe might fall for her new hairstyle.
Unfolding over 24 hours, the screwball comedy’s charm verges on frothy wish fulfillment, but gets anchored by Amy Adams’ refusal to play shallow. Her over-ambitious and under-talented Delysia might be toying with a 19-year-old producer (Tom Paine) and a slick nightclub owner (Mark Strong), but they’re using her in return, and Adams is smart enough to show she knows it. Delysia smiles brightest when she’s sad. The poor piano player who demands her fidelity (Lee Pace) is her obvious true love, but it’s not obvious she’ll give up stardom without it giving up on her first. She’s not a man-eater but a people-pleasing kitten. Hundreds like her flood the stage every year and all but a few slink back into the wings older, wiser, and used-up.
The jokes in David Magee and Simon Beaufoy’s script (based on Winifred Watson’s novel) are more expendable than its through line of flattery and desperation. And just when the romance boils over, the first planes of World War II thunder overhead and suddenly, who’s kissing who becomes a lot less important. As the young cocktail partiers shake off their gloom and uncork more champagne, Joe and Guinevere, near frozen with fear, shake their heads and sigh that the others “don’t remember the last time.” That moment of connection almost—but not quite—sells us on their love match, which feels more convenient than stirring. But as she hasn’t had a thing to eat in days, I’d forgive her if she snogged William Randolph Hearst to get a good meal. As the film seems to argue, feminine wiles can earn you money or love. Rarely both, but it never hurts to try.