Couture caper: 'Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris'

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday August 23, 2022
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Lesley Manville in "Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris"
Lesley Manville in "Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris"

We are all in need of a fairy tale for adults to lift up our spirits. Fortunately, Hollywood has given us a whimsical, enchanting one in "Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris," based on the beloved 1958 Paul Gallico novel, a contemporary Cinderella story that also serves as a feel-good fable about pursuing your dreams.

However, instead of marrying a prince (as wonderful as that might be) our resourceful heroine wants to buy a dress. Through her adventures, we are transported for two hours to an elegant, glamorous past as we encounter someone who wants her life to be bigger than it is.

It's London 1957. Middle-aged Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) cleans wealthy people's homes for a living. She's led a lonely, humble life since her husband presumably died in World War II.

Her life is turned upside down when she notices a breathtaking sparkling lavender Christian Dior "Ravishment" gown (you'll gasp when you see it) hanging in the master bedroom of a rich female client. It's a beautiful work of art and she decides she wants to fly to Paris and purchase a Dior dress for herself despite the astronomical cost (500 pounds).

She takes a gamble at the racetrack to win on a bet as well as assume extra odd-jobs, and cuts down on her expenses. A series of unexpected sources of funds will enable her to make the visit to the prestigious House of Dior. Her close friends, fellow cleaner/best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas) and bookie Archie (Jason Isaacs) support her daffy ambition.

Lesley Manville (center) in "Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris"  

Bonjour, tristesse
Obstacles continue to plague her even in Paris. The formidable, snobbish director of Dior, Madame Colbert (Isabelle Huppert) is aghast that a common charwoman would wear haute couture and denies Mrs. Harris entrance.

However, her unwavering commitment charms the aristocratic widower Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson), who invites her to the fashion show as his guest. She falls in love with a shimmery crimson-red concoction called Temptation, but a richer, snooty guest grabs it first.

She picks a stunning strapless emerald-green gown called Venus as a consolation prize. In financial trouble, Dior will take her ready cash in hand, but she discovers to her dismay, it will take more than a week to fit and sew her dress.

The idealistic Dior accountant Andre (Lucas Bravo) offers her to stay in his apartment, while Natasha (Alba Baptista, a dead ringer for the young Audrey Hepburn), a kind young model, disillusioned with celebrity, will act as tour guide to show Paris to Mrs. Harris. Andre is secretly in love with Natasha and the three of them will spend evenings together.

The dress becomes a catalyst for opening Mrs. Harris's heart and allowing her to love again after the loss of her husband. She even manages to rescue the House of Dior from potential bankruptcy. In changing her own life, she transforms the lives of those around her.

We won't spoil the surprise ending of whether Mrs. Harris gets her dress or what may happen if she does obtain it. But you will be rooting for Mrs. Harris all the way.

À bout de souffle
The main reason the film succeeds is Lesley Manville who is perfection in the role. She came to movie prominence five years ago in her Oscar-nominated performance in "Phantom Thread," as the obsessive, controlling, no-nonsense manager of her neurotic brother's fashion house. Mrs. Harris couldn't be more different: kind, resilient, resourceful, unselfish, generous, and warm, but a fighter helping other characters discover their true selves.

Lesley Manville in "Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris"  

Manville conveys nuanced emotions, especially a sad vulnerability in the first half of the film. "Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris" could have been treacly and overly sentimental, but Manville's steely determination to get what she wants prevents any saccharin overdoses. She's more Mary Poppins than Maria Von Trapp.

The film goes beyond a working-class woman pining for a fancy gown, because she realizes she can change the trajectory of her supposedly locked-in life, by taking advantage of whatever opportunity comes her way.

By projecting winsome gumption Manville makes it all believable. All the other actors are wonderful, especially Huppert playing a close cousin of Manville's Cyril Woodcock in "Phantom Thread."

The film also boasts a gay pedigree. Director Anthony Fabian is a gay native-born San Franciscan. The character of Christian Dior is gay as is the prissy male temperamental head dressmaker (today's equivalent of Franklin Pangborn).

Mrs. Harris considers herself an invisible woman, yet for a brief time she gets to live inside the world of the wealthy and elite. By being true to herself, Mrs. Harris wins over any opposition she encounters, which is a perennial LGBTQ theme.

The extravagant frocks are the other star and character of the movie, aided by the great English costume designer Jenny Beavan, known for her artistry on Merchant-Ivory films ("A Room With A View") and a three-time Oscar winner, including last year for "Cruella."

Her awe-inspiring attention to period detail ingeniously recreating iconic outfits (Dior's New Look and "Bar" suit) in the crescendo staging of the fashion show's parade of the actual gorgeous garments worn as part of Dior's 10th anniversary collection, will elicit shrieks of delight. It's the film's peak moment.

Also thanks to cinematographer Felix Wiedemann, nostalgic scenes of Paris in the 1950s will leave you swooning.The film is slightly too long, implausible at times, especially the idea that Mrs. Harris would lead the Dior workers on a strike (a Hollywood invention, as it doesn't happen in the novel) or Andre's plan that Dior would create ready-to-wear dresses for working-class women decades before it actually occurred.

Finally, the ending is far-fetched, but we don't care. Built on artifice yet casting a spell over its audience, this entrancing escapist journey into magical realism (not for the cynics among us) will thrill all audacious dreamers, acting as a ray of light in a dark summer.

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