Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

2022, PG, 115 min. Directed by Anthony Fabian. Starring Lesley Manville, Isabelle Huppert, Lucas Bravo, Rose Williams, Ellen Thomas, Lambert Wilson, Jason Isaacs, Anna Chancellor, Alba Baptista, Christian McKay.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., July 15, 2022

The sing-song title may invoke the whimsy of a childhood nursery rhyme, but the hard-to-resist (try … I dare you) Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is an adult fairy tale, one in which a middle-aged Englishwoman who scrubs floors for ungrateful clients imagines herself the belle of the ball in a bedazzling Christian Dior creation the color of rubies. A lovely Cinderella fantasy, right? Yes, especially when the titular role of the sweet London cleaning lady with French designer dreams is performed by Lesley Manville. A reliable collaborator in British filmmaker Mike Leigh’s working-class dramas over the years, her most prominent (and Oscar-nominated) role to date in Phantom Thread five years ago strangely foretold this more endearing character in yet another film about the allure of haute couture.

The script is based on a cherished 1958 novel by Paul Gallico, the first book in a series chronicling the global adventures of his Cockney charwoman, with the dropped “H” in her surname restored to the title here in keeping with a more mainstreamed character. Rather than settle into 1950s middle-class complacency after her husband’s death in the waning years of World War II, the unassuming Mrs. H decides to do something extraordinary, and perhaps foolish, for a woman of her limited means: Go to the House of Dior in Paris and purchase an evening gown with the quid she’s obsessively saved through various means for this sole purpose. Of course, she predictably encounters snobbery in this quest for elegance (Huppert’s barely humanized salon manager is a featured villain), but this determined dreamer eventually wins over her detractors and even inspires the Parisian couturier’s democratized transition to a prêt-à-porter fashion line. Not a bad day’s work for someone who scratches out a living dusting shelves.

Though the movie delivers its chuckles and elicits its sighs in a calibrated narrative arc that softens the hard edges of its late bloomer’s life, it would be shortsighted to hastily dismiss Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris as sentimental escapist fare that quickly evaporates into the ether of silly romanticism. Manville’s nuanced emotional inflections as a long-invisible human being who simply wants the world to see her, just once, linger in their simple honesty, hitching the film to a heart-bound reality in contradiction to the unreality of a fanciful fable with a flip nod toward Sartrean philosophy. In meta fashion, this may be the movie that finally makes the inestimable Manville – now front and center – deservedly visible for the first time in her career. How’s that for a happy ending?

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Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, Anthony Fabian, Lesley Manville, Isabelle Huppert, Lucas Bravo, Rose Williams, Ellen Thomas, Lambert Wilson, Jason Isaacs, Anna Chancellor, Alba Baptista, Christian McKay

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