Although there are a few vulgarities that would not have been in a film of the thirties, it was fun to see the luxurious art deco apartment where Delysia (Amy Adams) carries on as both an aspiring actress and a kept woman, as well as the Savoy Hotel, in the full array of an elegant fashion show luncheon. Having already seen Amy Adams in her later film Doubt, in which she played a nun, I am impressed more than ever by her range as an actress. She reminded me of a young Jean Arthur, except much prettier. Frances McDormand's performance as Guinevere was both humorous and deep, fraught with pathos without being overly sentimental. McDormand's Miss Pettigrew transforms a light-hearted farce into a searing look at the preciousness of true love, as well as the ability of genuine love to see the inner beauty of the beloved.
According to Variety:
"I am not an expert on love, I am an expert on the lack of love, Delysia, and that is a fate from which I wish more fervently to save you." Miss Pettigrew's words to Delysia set her apart from those who wish to exploit the young woman. Her gentle attempts at moral guidance give a mooring to Delysia; such are the markings of a true friend. In spite of the effervescent glamor of the film, one comes away with an overwhelming sense that in this fleeting life, riches are to be found in the intangible qualities of authentic love and friendship.
As [the] pic's deficient farcical elements begin to recede, its moral and emotional underpinnings come gently to the fore. A woman that life has mostly passed by, Guinevere still possesses a very proper sense of right and wrong that makes her the ideal momentary cohort for the self-absorbed Delysia; as Guinevere observes, "I am an expert on the lack of love." Without putting too fine a point on it, script by David Magee ("Finding Neverland") and Simon Beaufoy ("The Full Monty") offers a quiet critique of self-delusion in immediate pre-war Britain and, more generally, of opportunistic behavior at the expense of long-term benefits.
McDormand's performance slowly builds a solid integrity, and contrasts well with Adams' more flamboyant turn, which initially accentuates Delysia's constant role playing but eventually flowers into a gratifyingly full-fledged portrayal of a woman with a past she wishes to escape. Hinds puts real feeling into his work as a self-made gentleman who instantly recognizes Guinevere's fine human qualities.
Shot almost entirely at the Ealing Studios, pic has a luxuriantly upholstered look, fostered by production designer Sarah Greenwood, costume designer Michael O'Connor and lenser John de Borman, that sumptuously expresses the transition from one era to another.