London, 1939. Destitute ex-governess Miss P (McDormand) seeks employment with dizzy nightclub chanteuse Delysia LaFosse (Adams), and suddenly finds herself plunged into a heady new world of couture, cocktails and sexy shenanigans.
When the prim Frances McDormand’s shabby Guinevere Pettigrew, genteel, impoverished but plucky, meets Amy Adams’ blithe American entertainer Delysia LaFosse, it’s like seeing a grounded Mary Poppins taking charge of Lorelei Lee. Delysia is from Pittsburgh, not Little Rock, but it’d be a shock to hear the enchanting Adams wasn’t inspired by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Miss P’s first task is to spirit away the naked chap in the boudoir before the possessive rake (Mark Strong) who pays the rent reaches the door. Giddy Delysia is in what might be construed as an enviable tizzy, since she is also being wooed by her pianist, the adorable Michael (Lee Pace, of Pushing Daisies). In this hectic bedroom farce of a day, Miss P becomes ever more embroiled in the affairs of pre-War London’s café society, including a celebrity stylist (Shirley Henderson), a manly millionaire (Ciarán Hinds) and a sideshow of Noël Cowardesque socialites.
Steering course full sail through this fluff and nonsense is the utterly majestic McDormand, who can do a brilliant comic double-take and pluck at the heartstrings simultaneously. No-one can make a one-liner more droll or laden with meaning than she, and she has some good ’uns in an adaptation - by Finding Neverland’s David Magee and The Full Monty’s Simon Beaufoy - of a 1938 bestseller whipped into yummy sweets in a sumptuous Art Deco package, like a Fred Astaire movie with less dancing but prettier men. Rather amazingly, it has been niftily directed by Bharat Nalluri, whose CV is stuffed with more beef than bon bons: Life On Mars, Spooks and the gut-wrenching Tsunami: The Aftermath, as well as the caper series he conceived, Hustle.
It fizzes along. There’s a fabulous fashion show, copious imbibing of cocktails and that beloved staple of every chick flick worth its salt: The Makeover Montage, with Miss Pettigrew permed, primped and poured into a swellegant ensemble. McDormand’s comic timing is genius, but she’s also the anchor to reality, a worn survivor of war and depression whose plight and grateful pleasure for a grand day out feels genuine, insightful and touching.
A charming 1930s Cinderella meets Sex And The City, only faster, funnier and male-friendly, with some depths in its subtler observations of morality.