'Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris' a delightful escape to fashionable 1950s
We could all use a little escapism right now, especially when the escapism in question is as exceedingly pleasant as Anthony Fabian’s “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” starring the luminous Lesley Manville as a cleaning lady from London who takes a trip to Paris to see about a frock. It’s not just any frock — it’s haute couture from the House of Christian Dior, the kind of dress that can change a life, and in this case, changes many.
London, 1957. Ada Harris (Manville), a modest woman who makes her living cleaning up after others, has been waiting around for her Eddie, who has yet to return from the war. She has a prim basement apartment, a friend Vi (Ellen Thomas) with whom she rides the bus and shares port with lemon at the pub after work, and a passing interest in the dashing Archie (Jason Isaacs), who always seems to be dancing with someone else.
Her clients take her for granted, but Ada is a woman who believes in signs and serendipity, and soon, the messages from the universe are too many to ignore. First, a package with Eddie’s ring and a letter that he’s been officially killed in action, his plane shot down in 1944. Then, a widow’s pension, a reward for turning in a diamond pin, and a sports bet that manages to go the right way, thanks to a little help from her friends. She knows exactly where she’ll put this unexpected windfall, having fallen under the spell of a sparkling pink Dior gown in the closet of one of her more difficult clients, Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor).
One could say that frittering away money on an expensive dress wouldn’t be worth it, but one would be revealing themselves as not knowing the power of real fashion; that often looking good means feeling good, and feeling good means knowing, and demanding, your own worth. This is the message of “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” which boasts a proud pro-labor sentiment, starting with Mrs. Harris, whose adventure across the English Channel helps her to see herself as someone worth being seen, someone deserving of nice things.
Her newfound empowerment starts almost as soon as she lands in Paris. Having traveled so far, she does what seems impossible: standing up to Isabelle Huppert. The legendary French actress plays the snooty Mme. Colbert, who threatens to kick her out of the exclusive fashion house. But cash in hand, she’s welcomed by the workers of Dior, including Andre Fauvel (Lucas Bravo), the accountant, manager Marguerite (Roxane Duran) and model Natasha (Alba Baptista). Ada’s working-class English spunk also catches the eye of the Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson), and bestowed with their goodwill, she enjoys a week in Paris while her Dior gown is custom made. Along the way, she’ll do a little matchmaking, unionize the atelier and help to change the way Dior does business forever.
The story is fantastical, predictable and utterly delightful, allowing the audience to engage in familiar generic pleasures that have been cut and trimmed to fit every curve neatly. Based on the 1958 novel by Paul Gallico, and written by Fabian, Carroll Cartwright, Keith Thompson and Olivia Hetreed, “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” sits at the well-appointed intersection of “Phantom Thread” and “Emily in Paris,” which shares much narrative DNA. It’s particularly amusing to see Manville square up with Huppert as the hoity-toity hard-nosed manager of a fashion house, when Manville so deliciously ate up a similar role in her Oscar-nominated performance in “Phantom Thread.” Plus, it’s a treat to see French hunk Bravo of “Emily in Paris” as the bumbling, bespectacled and besotted young accountant.
The film swirls around Manville’s charismatically authentic performance as Mrs. Harris. It wouldn’t be as believable or as charming without her in the role, and she holds the center with ease, the perfect subject (not mannequin) on which to build the frothy fashion delight that is “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” an escape we all deserve.
‘MRS. HARRIS GOES TO PARIS'
3 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: PG (for suggestive material, language and smoking)
Running time: 1:55