Sarah Greenwood is by far one of my favorite production designers. Her work just has a way of capturing my imagination completely. Her collaborations with Joe Wright (director of Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Hanna, Anna Karenina) will get their own posts, in future; but, for now, I'd like to share some photos/thoughts of her work on Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (directed by Bharat Nalluri).
If you haven't seen this movie, you are missing out on a sweet gem of a film. It stars Frances McDormand, as a frump-a-licious Miss Pettigrew, Amy Adams in the beguiling role of Delysia, a debonair Ciaran Hinds and a very dreamy Lee Pace. Part of what makes this film so good is that you can tell that Sarah, costume designer Michael O'Connor and cinematographer John de Borman all collaborated so beautifully - the visual themes are as tightly packaged as the story itself. They effortlessly weave elements of heaven, purgatory and hell into a story about love as the ultimate salvation for one's soul...all while keeping it fresh, funny and (hardest of all) sincere.
Here we see Miss Pettigrew at her lowest - having been fired, yet again. A train station waiting room with jail-like doors reflect her inner sense of being in purgatory...a life in limbo where she has nowhere to go and no one to turn to...one can't help but feel sympathy for her here and hope that her suffering will be short-lived.
While at a job agency, Miss Pettigrew is told there are no nanny positions for her, but she overhears that a Miss Delysia Lafosse is looking for someone. Out of sheer desperation Miss Pettigrew swipes Delysia's calling card. Soon after, we see her knocking on Delysia's door. Trying to be useful upon meeting her, she offers to go wake up Delysia's "boy" - and boy, is she in for a surprise. Delysia mistakes Miss Pettigrew for the social secretary she had requested while Miss Pettigrew thinks she is filling a nanny position.
Above we see Miss Pettigrew's drab, brown, wooly presence standing in stark contrast to the jewel-box world that Delysia has created for herself. The flat couldn't be more beautiful but the life lived within these walls quite shocks Miss Pettigrew's sensitivities. She later aptly refers to it as a "den of iniquity" -- to which Delysia giggles and replies innocently "Oh! You mean here."
Can we please take a moment and appreciate the loveliness that are these walls? That looks like either hand-painted wallpaper or fabric wallcovering - either way, I love it! And the tufted wall behind the bed? Yes, please and thank you.
Delysia's world opens into even greater opulence when she brings Miss Pettigrew to a lingerie fashion show. Den of iniquity indeed.
A feast for the eyes...and poor Miss Pettigrew's stomach, which hasn't had a proper meal in quite some time. Note the "marble statues" on the runway. It is here in the midst of this roomful of beautiful people, that Miss Pettigrew first meets Joe. It appears that this place of beauty and feasting may also prove to awaken Miss Pettigrew's long-starved appetite for love.
Bringing the character of Delysia to life was done with wonderful care and balance. She is willfully ignorant of the ugliness in life because of her very fear of finding it. She clings to the superficial like a safety blanket. Being viewed as a thing of beauty and something to be desired - therein, she thinks, lies her strength.
In this shot, they've turned her into a work of art (not unlike the "marble statues" we saw in the fashion show earlier), quite obviously invoking Botticelli's Birth of Venus. Clam shell bathtub, anyone? The framing and lighting of this shot makes it seem as if she is part of an otherworldly tableau. Miss Pettigrew, like we, is a worshipful observer.
Here is a wonderful shot of Delysia's London flat. She is a kept woman -- specifically kept by Nick, a rather possessive nightclub owner. A gorgeous deco-influenced interior -- shiny and new even for its time (1939). Such lush surroundings make one quite sympathetic to her clinging to this vision of "happiness," however ill-conceived it may be.
I absolutely love the cloud detailing above the chandelier, by the stairs. Add that to the composition of this shot and you do very much get the sense of heaven and earth with Delysia as an angel. Or perhaps, her head is merely lost in the clouds and she is in desperate need of a grounded soul, like Miss Pettigrew.
And speaking of clouds...isn't this be-feathered ceiling a wonderful echo of the same theme? Here Michael is the "angel" walking towards her. He will be her salvation. Of all the men in her life, he is the only one that truly knows her and loves her.
This composition is wonderful in that it captures Delysia turning her back on the heavenly possibilities of love because she is blinded by the glitz of the superficial - in this case the garrish glitz of Nick's Scarlet Peacock night club.
Certainly a film full of references to heaven and purgatory would not be complete without its version of hell. We find a dazzling version of it in Nick's Scarlet Peacock night club. Our would-be angel, Delysia, descends down to the red-hot den of jazzy iniquity. It also calls to mind Persephone's descend into Hades -- granted Delysia is a much more willing participant decking herself out as a golden trophy.
The glow of the red neon peacock in this space and the spotlight which swings around the dancing couples is very striking. It plays into the visual build up to the climax of Delysia's story. Will she choose the life of superficial wealth or follow her heart? She, with the help of Miss Pettigrew of course, chooses her heart.
But what of Miss Pettigrew's fate? It is in this back alley set that her true self is revealed to Joe. This is a wonderful outside/inside set. It has a view of the night sky above but also gates to the world outside of the night club. It is through the gates we see red neon and in the sky a searchlight (looking out for those pesky WWII air raids), which perfectly echoes the visual build-up we saw in the club earlier. Both she and Joe have walked through the be-feathered dressing room to get to this space and it feels significant. Their passage together out of Nick's club and everything it represents.
This is the very last scene in the film. A beautiful narrative and visual bookend. The jail-like doors of purgatory now transforming into the gates of heaven. She's made her way out -- no longer waiting, defeated by life, but rather with a clear path and the promise of love ahead with Joe. Call me a sap but that is a heckuva happy ending!