“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” (2022) – “You dare to follow your dreams, Mrs. Harris. Bravo.” – Natasha (Alba Baptista)
Ada Harris (Lesley Manville), a London cleaning lady, hasn’t contemplated her dreams in years, except for wishing that her husband Eddie would walk through the front door of her basement apartment.
The year is 1957, and Eddie still hasn’t returned from the war. So, Ada spends her days traveling on the London Town bus lines to her clients, tidying up their opulent flats and homes during the daylight hours, and sleeping alone on one side of her bed at night. Thankfully, she frequently visits her best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas) for laughs and camaraderie, and another pal, Archie (Jason Isaacs), is also a jolly sort.
Otherwise, each ordinary day runs into the other until she spots a dazzling Christian Dior dress at one of the aforementioned apartments.
The sight of this intricate, flowery costume – with the power of a shiny red bike sitting under a Christmas tree, a gregarious puppy in a pet shop window, or a million dollars wrapped in cellophane bricks – transports her to a dizzying state of delight. Ada’s in love, and when she discovers that the sparkly gown cost 500 quid, this determined 50 or 60-something realizes her dream: to travel to Paris and buy her own Christian Dior.
How much is 500 pounds in today’s money? According to Google, it’s 5,272.44, give or take a pence. Doesn’t matter. To her, a Dior is priceless.
Now, director/co-writer Anthony Fabian’s picture – based on Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel – is a throwback to old-fashioned 1950s flicks, like “Roman Holiday” (1953) or “Summertime” (1955) and with similar art direction and cinematography as Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven”, a 1950s drama released in 2002. “Mrs. Harris” isn’t as strong or exactly like these all-time classics. Still, it’s a competent movie, and Manville and her co-star Isabelle Huppert offer spirited performances and on-screen appeal.
The Oscar-nominated Manville has turned in great work for years, including supporting roles in several Mike Leigh pictures, and for the record, she’s fabulous in “Another Year” (2010).
Here, Lesley plays the lead, and even though Ada has a not-always-easy, working-class life, this is a refreshing light role for Manville. She effectively carries Ada’s hardship and her character’s new willingness, due to her pursuit of an exclusive dress, to stand up for herself. Ada transforms from swallowing her words to speaking her mind, even though she creates confrontation with her Cockney accent and suddenly strident behavior.
Yes, she does get to Paris, and Fabian and cinematographer Felix Wiedemann capture some of the city’s most iconic sights, like the Eiffel Tower (from a distance), the Sacre-Coeur, and the Seine. If you look closely during a flower garden scene, you’ll see Notre-Dame. Fabian does check the sightseeing boxes for French aficionados, but the 110-minute movie doesn’t overflow with constant Parisian delights. One might hope for more, but it’s difficult to make a film set in 1957 and then take the cameras to a madhouse of 2022 individuals surrounding the Eiffel Tower. We get it, and no, Ada doesn’t take an elevator to the top of the Tower.
The screenplay – written by Fabian and three others – does involve cultural clashes between the English and French, which crystalize into a combat of words between Ada and Claudine (Huppert). Claudine manages the Dior operation, and her posh, snobbish air regularly collides with Ada’s naive, sometimes clumsy posture. This Brit rolls in with cash rolls and isn’t afraid to hold them out and essentially say, “My money is good too.” The English and French have stepped into verbal and actual confrontations for centuries, and Manville and Huppert have fun with their characters’ grievances and differences throughout the film in broad and nuanced ways.
For instance, even sharing a drink carries a “Cheers” from Claudine and “Bottoms up” from Ada.
Ironically, Huppert essentially plays Manville’s role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” (2017), so enjoy witnessing this role reversal. Fabian includes a couple of subplots involving a potential romance between two Dior coworkers, Andre (Lucas Bravo) and Natasha, and a cash flow issue at the dress manufacturer. Both storylines, however, feel forced, even though Bravo and Baptista give warm performances. It just seems there isn’t enough screen time devoted to the pair to stir enough chemistry, although, sure, we’re rooting for them. (Baptista may remind you of a young, French Audrey Hepburn.)
Ada looks for romance too, and her emotional journey connects with this critic and is a productive use of time. Of course, Fabian devotes on-screen minutes to fashion, including countless ballroom walks with models donning flawless fabrics and even staging a twirl or two.
Attempting to find your footing while experiencing Paris would be a dream for millions, and this is Ada’s pursuit. Perhaps “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” will inspire the masses to make similar trips. Hey, give it a go if you have 5,000-plus pounds in your pocket!
Well, either way, Manville and Huppert are inspiring…always.
⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed by: Anthony Fabian
Written by: Anthony Fabian, Carroll Cartwright, Keith Thompson, and Olivia Hetreed, based on Paul Gallico’s novel
Starring: Lesley Manville, Isabelle Huppert, Jason Isaacs, Ellen Thomas, Alba Baptista, Lucas Bravo, and Lambert Wilson
Runtime: 110 minutes
Image credits: Focus Features