Based on Winifred Watson's largely forgotten 1938 novel set in a London where the rich breakfast on champagne and cocaine and the poor manage on a ladle of lumpy stew, Miss Pettigrew centers on a hungry, homeless nanny who blunders into a banquet.
As McDormand plays her, Miss Pettigrew is straitlaced - she's a vicar's daughter, after all - but also a tangle of untied shoes and unkempt hair. Her nannying style of being permissive with children and hard-line with parents has not earned her the confidence of employers.
When Pettigrew is unceremoniously fired by her employment agency for unsuitability, Our Heroine intercepts the card of the American jazz singer looking for a social secretary.
Presenting herself at the swank apartment of dizzy Delysia (sounds like "Delicious"), Pettigrew reckons that society types are much like children, are they not?
Over the next 24 hours, Pettigrew, acknowledged failure with children, briskly sorts out flighty Delysia, who's ruffled from hopping among the beds of Phil (Tom Payne), a theatrical producer, Nick (Mark Strong), a nightclub owner, and Michael (delectable Lee Pace), her piano accompanist.
The best that can be said about the work of director Bharat Nalluri, best-known for TV mini-series such as Tsunami: The Aftermath, is that he hired a top-line production designer (Sarah Greenwood) and doesn't get in the way of the actors. His choppy film doesn't have much in the way of pace, but it does have affection for Pettigrew, Delysia, and Joe (Ciaran Hinds), a lingerie designer who proves to be more interested in the minds of women than in their bodies.
In most films, opportunistic Delysia would be the shiny lead with moral-compass Pettigrew providing sturdy support. The pleasant surprise here is that the roles are reversed, and that in helping Pettigrew, Delysia helps herself.
While Adams' Delysia comes across as an agreeable combination of the sporting Ginger Rogers and sultry Rita Hayworth, her real job here is to help Pettigrew transform from frump to flower. Meaning that she prevails upon Pettigrew to exchange a shapeless brown dress for a jaunty blue one with lace trim. Very fetching.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/