Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is set in a fairy-tale 1939 England. Married Life takes place in an imagined 1949 America. Yet both pictures bear the recognizable time stamp of right now. Don't be fooled by the frothy vision of Amy Adams in draped furs and fetching hats as Miss Pettigrew's madcap American nightclub singer and aspiring actress, or by the sleek, platinum blond grace of Rachel McAdams as a thoughtful widow in love with another woman's husband in Married Life. These re-created epochal settings, with lavish attention paid to the serving of tea cakes, mask thoroughly modern, approving attitudes of feminine autonomy and sexual equality, both by the writers and directors as well as the frisky actors happy to play ''historical.''
And by actors I mean, specifically, actresses. McAdams and Adams are dewy, vibrant stars whose popularity lies in the feminist independence they generously grant to the fictional women they play. How we love the trappings of other periods provided we can tinker with the period attitudes to suit our current fashions! Both these slight, wistful movies evanescent diversions with a combined weight of less than a magnum of champagne play at matters of financial, professional, marital, and erotic dilemma with all the seriousness of an after-dinner game of charades. Mostly, they each put on a pretty show.
Of the two, Married Life has more on its mind, manifest in the arch elegance of the plot, a looped chain of infidelities and loyalties meant to comment on the mysteries of marital bonds. (Ira Sachs, who made the outstanding 2005 indie Forty Shades of Blue, directed, and co-wrote the script with Oren Moverman.) Playing Kay, widowed by WWII and living in an unnamed suburb, McAdams is a particularly delightful vision after her two-year intermission from the screen following The Family Stone. So it's no stretch to see how a romantic, lonely married man like Harry Allen (Chris Cooper, wonderfully subtle), missing enough emotional intimacy with his wife, Pat (Patricia Clarkson, Cooper's perfect match), could fall in love with Kay's compassion or, indeed, how Kay's heart would open to a gentle man who needs her so sincerely. (Pierce Brosnan complicates the plot as Harry's lothario of a single friend, Richard, who also sets his sights on Kay.) In fact, Married Life is much more about the enduring relationship between husband and wife than it is about the excitement between husband and girlfriend. So sure is Harry that divorce would devastate Pat that he resolves, out of love, to kill her himself. Married Life congratulates its audience on a sophisticated, humorous complicity in the obvious immorality of Harry's murder plans, as well as in Richard's own ungentlemanly designs on his pal's gorgeous girl. Every adult, the movie suggests, has got a secret.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, in contrast, thinks secrets are quite naughty, in a nursery way. But they're also kind of cute, in a British tweedle-dee-dee way. We're meant to cheer when Frances McDormand, as the title middle-aged, prim British miss, desperate for a job, lies her way into the employ of Delysia Lafosse (Adams). It's a wonder Miss P isn't carrying Mary Poppins' tool kit, so useful does she turn out to be for Delysia, who's got two caddish, bedable beaus and one genuine, jazz-piano-playing nobody who honestly loves her (Lee Pace from Pushing Daisies). Adams, of course, is a peach. Her sparkle requires only minor character adjustment and twinkle recharging from her recent triumph as the old-fashioned modern heroine in Enchanted.
Delysia's perils and pleasures don't amount to a hill of beans (the movie, based on a forward-thinking 1938 novel by Winifred Watson, is directed by Britain-based Bharat Nalluri). Neither do those of Miss P, who happens to enchant an attractive, mature, successful widower (Ciarán Hinds) of her own in the course of a day's work. Then again, Miss Pettigrew, and Married Life, for that matter, aren't about the real pleasures and perils of not-too-distant past eras; they're about pleasurable, flattering role choices for popular actresses and their admirers and about nifty, fun-to-wear vintage costumes, too. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: C+; Married Life: B