In Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, Lesley Manville is a working class house cleaner in post WWII London who dreams of venturing to Paris to purchase the perfect Dior dress. If that sounds like a women’s picture, it turns out to be much more—the genuine article of a sweet, kindhearted and affirming tale both hardscrabble and magical, as only the best fairy tales can be.
Lovingly written and directed by Anthony Fabian in his first major picture, Manville returns, in a sense, to the world of high fashion she so expertly commanded in her Oscar-nominated viperish turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, but this time with the warmth of her New York Film Critics Best Actress winning work in Mike Leigh’s Another Year. In Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, the world-class actress plays Ada Harris, a scraping by cleaner exploited by her clients and holding out hope for her gone silent, lost-at-war husband, who turns out to have been killed in a plane crash.
This heartbreaking news is met with a military pension, enough to propel Mrs. Harris from gloomy, misty London to a vision of an enchantingly romantic Paris, money in her pocket and a dream in her heart to purchase a Christian Dior gown like the bejeweled dress owned by a callous client. She’s a long way from the near penniless survival in The Big Smoke, logging and saving every coin, betting on dog races and socking it all away with a goal to visit Paris—and with the pension she’s finally able to realize her dream.
On Paris arrival (and after bonding with some central casting, kind-hearted Parisian homeless; it’s that kind of movie), she heads straightaway to the fashion house’s tony headquarters, only to be greeted with elitist disdain from a cooly regal Isabelle Huppert (in the same role Manville herself played in PTAs picture) as Claudine Colbert, the couture house’s watchdog and second in command (as well as the embodiment of every foreigner’s worst nightmare—the cliche condescension of the French upper class).
Mrs. Harris’ plainspoken kindness impresses a gorgeous model named Natasha (Alba Baptista), and she is instantly thrust into a private runway show of jaw-dropping haute couture elegance in a most magical extended sequence (which deploys a sublime array of vintage Dior fashion). Ms. Colbert wants her quickly jettisoned, but to her ire Mrs. Harris catches the affections of one Marquis de Chassange (Lambert Wilson), offering his companionship, and also the admiration of the Dior house accountant and future strategist Andre (Lucas Bravo, charming), who invites the soon-to-be fairy godmother to stay in his flat while the Dior house reluctantly prepares her dress during a flurry of visits, fittings and a bit of—wouldn’t you know it?— matchmaking between budding actress and philosophy-reading model and harried accountant. There’s even a fancifully winning scene where Mrs. Harris marches the entire staff of the Dior shop into the office of the big boss himself, encouraging change and evolution for the fashion house and its creators. Unlikely? Maybe. Rewarding? Richly.
In a near-perfect picture loaded with charm, Fabian has crafted a love letter to Paris (deeply romantic views of the Seine, flower markets, etc.) and to the great Manville, whose performance is a welcome ray of light in every scene; class differences be damned, she touches and moves those around her with salt-of-the-earth kindness, the picture suggesting the impact that a simple person of good values and compassion can make in the world, in unexpected ways, unlikely places and with people from different realms who share the same values.
The actress, who has the rare distinction amongst contemporaries of perfection every time out regardless of character or milieu, delivered a scorching villainess turn in 2020’s Kevin Costner-Diane Lane heartland noir Let Him Go, a calculating, icy fashion magnate in 2017’s Phantom Thread, a heartrending portrait of middle-aged self-sabotage and loneliness in 2010 Another Year and a long-term marital love story opposite Liam Neeson in 2019’s Ordinary Love. That’s quite a run in the past few years and one that should make any serious filmgoer light up at Manville’s mention on the bill in any new picture. If justice prevails, she’ll be on the bill in the awards conversation later this year for her wonderful, humble, humorous work here.
Huppert is great fun in what initially appears a somewhat narrowly conceived role, acting in English for the first time since her Oscar-nominated work in Paul Verhoeven’s protean 2016 provocation Elle. Here the international star turns in a comically imperious and classist supporting performance as a character that initially seems atypically broad for the studied French acting icon of nearly 40 years, but a surprisingly effective late scene reveals why the actress accepted the role.
Fabian ends his picture on a note-perfect scene which is less wish fulfillment and more romantic realism. Special mention to the terrific Ellen Thomas as Mrs. Harris’ fellow cleaner and best friend Vi, who comes through when needed, and a substantial Jason Isaacs as London friend Archie, who like us, falls head-over-heels for the picture’s tender person of little means and huge heart.
3 1/s stars