There’s a wonderful symmetry to the lead casting of Lesley Manville in Mrs. Harris Goes to Parisplaying a woman who’s the flipside of Cyril, her role in Phantom Thread. That character glided around a mid-’50s London couture atelier with icy ownership, fiercely protective of her dress designer brother and his classical creations. As Mrs. Harris, Manville dreams of accessing a similarly privileged world of sartorial splendor, one in which her age and class make her seem an unlikely interloper. The beauty of her performance in this delightful fairy tale for grown-ups is the way in which her purity of heart and inherent goodness gently pry open those closed doors.
Manville has excelled at playing characters on the brittle, aloof, even villainous end of the spectrum; she was a viciously tyrannical matriarch Let Him Go and the juiciest of schemers in Harlots. So it’s disarming to watch her disappear into a humble working-class woman without an ounce of meanness or calculation. The radiance she brings to the role, along with clever screenplay expansions and Anthony Fabian’s light-touch direction, give this Focus Features release a considerable lift over the last adaptation of Paul Gallico’s novel, a sweet but forgettable 1992 TV movie that starred Angela Lansbury.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris
The Bottom Line
What makes Ada Harris such a lovely character is that she’s not an arriviste. Rather than an aspirational climber, she’s a woman who makes no attempt to disguise her background as a house cleaner making a living scrubbing the floors and scouring the bathrooms of well-heeled Londoners. But when she gets a glimpse of a shimmering couture gown from the House of Dior, purchased by one posh client (Anna Chancellor) who keeps crying poor when it comes time to settle her household accounts, Mrs. Harris starts daydreaming about how it would feel to own such a dress herself.
Having finally received confirmation in 1957 of the death of her beloved RAF pilot husband, Eddie, shot down near Warsaw 12 years earlier, Mrs. Harris could use a touch of grace, even magic in her life. But the movie goes beyond Mrs. Harris’ circumstances to champion the right of all invisible women to be seen and appreciated as individuals, every bit as entitled to swathe themselves in drop-dead glamor and sensuality as the flawless beauties who model the clothes in the exclusive Dior salon on Paris’ Avenue Montaigne.
The early action is set in a fogbound storybook London, where Mrs. Harris shuffles off to work every morning on the bus in the predawn hours with her best friend and neighbor, Vi (Ellen Thomas). There’s an understated touched-by-an-angel aspect in the details of how she accumulates the then-outrageous sum of 500 pounds that a Dior dress would cost. Mrs. Harris achieves this through a series of charmed windfalls, setbacks, happy accidents and the helping hand of a raffish bookmaker acquaintance, Archie (Jason Isaacs).
She arrives in Paris believing that a Dior acquisition will be as straightforward as buying a frock from Woolworth’s, but soon learns that tailoring, measurements and fitting will take weeks. That’s if she can get past the snooty gatekeeper, Madame Colbert (Isabelle Huppert), who shudders at the idea of a common charwoman wearing haute couture.
With the help of chivalrous Anglophile the Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson), Mrs. Harris gets a front-row showroom seat for the debut of Dior’s 10th anniversary collection. That sequence will induce swoons for anyone interested in fashion history.
The dresses include re-created originals from the House of Dior (the maison collaborated with the production) and stunning elaborations by costume designer Jenny Beavan. While the presence of models of color is a concession to contemporary audiences, the exclusive parade is a transporting step back in time, with cinematographer Felix Wiedemann cleverly using Hitchcock’s dolly zoom (the first of multiple times that variations on the shot are employed) to convey Mrs. Harris’ Rapture.
As in every iteration of the Cinderella story, Mrs. Harris has “fairies” to help her overcome the many obstacles to owning a Dior gown. The company’s shy accountant André Fauvel (played by Emily in ParisLucas Bravo (in the tradition of the total babe no one notices behind his glasses) offers her a place to stay in his Montmartre hilltop apartment and invites her to borrow his absent sister’s wardrobe. Gorgeous model Natasha (Alba Baptista), the “face of Dior,” responds to her kindness with friendship, whizzing her across town in her glamorous red Renault Caravelle convertible. And showroom assistant Marguerite (Roxane Duran) acts as a buffer with haughty head tailor Monsieur Carré (Bertrand Poncet), while Mrs. Harris endears herself to the hive of seamstresses.
The switch in the screenplay by Carroll Cartwright, Anthony Fabian, Olivia Hetreed and Keith Thompson is that Mrs. Harris herself becomes the fairy godmother. She nudges André to overcome his feelings of unworthiness and declare his affections for Natasha, whose passion for Sartre and the existentialists is just one sign that she’s squirming on her pedestal and starved for an intellectual life. And Mrs. Harris pays attention when a friendly wino tells her, “In France, the worker is king,” becoming an unlikely labor leader when the cash-strapped House of Dior is forced to cut staff. This enables her also to push André forward with his progressive ideas about democratizing high fashion, while causing sparks with Mme. Colbert that end with the two adversaries as proto-feminist allies.
Director Fabian and his co-writers have a knack for making the most potentially pandering or sentimental developments go down like a delectable sorbet, so much so that even such glaring anachronisms as Mrs. Harris’ “You go, girl” affirmations are endearing. And although they keep Gallico’s original somber outcome concerning Mrs. Harris’ gown and her generous gesture to ditzy London starlet Pamela Penrose (Rose Williams), they add an uplifting coda that goes full fairy tale, even dropping a tantalizing hint that it’s not too late for Mrs. Harris to find a new love. The buoyant waltz themes of Rael Jones’ score fit the material to perfection.
Distinguished veteran Luciana Arrighi’s pretty production design blends seamlessly with subtle CG work to re-create a Paris that evokes the city’s magnificent cinematic past, notably so in a walk along the Seine dappled in bewitching evening light. The movie is a love letter to the French capital and its halls of fashion, so naturally, its sense of style is impeccable. It’s conceivable that Baptista’s side-part bangs and bouncy curled ponytail could inspire many imitators.
But the human element is what ultimately sells it. Baptista and Bravo make a captivating pair, their characters clearly destined to open up each other’s lives. Isaacs is a rogue charmer, Thomas is jolly warmth personified, and Wilson makes a dashing aristocrat whose unintentional slight toward Mrs. Harris helps reveal her refusal to be merely everyone’s support vessel, with no needs or desires of her own.
Huppert is at her witheringly imperious best, more or less playing the French counterpart to Manville’s Cyril in Phantom Thread, which makes her eventual display of fragility all the more touching. But this is Manville’s film, a too-rare star vehicle in which one of England’s most invaluable actors carries us effortlessly on the wings of Mrs. Harris’ dream of egalitarian elegance.