Film & Television

Lesley Manville Twinkles in ‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’ 

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful and kind young woman who was forced to live a life of drudgery in the service of a set of selfish others. One night, her fairy godmother appeared and, with the help of a large gourd and some friendly rodents, magically transformed her into a princess. She attended a ball where a prince fell truly, madly, deeply in love with her. However, the spell wore off, as spells will do, and she returned to her relentless chores. The prince, somehow certain after just a couple of waltzes that she was his one and only, looked for her throughout the kingdom. Aided by a crystal shoe, he found her. She became a princess again, and they lived happily ever after.

It’s a familiar story and one that has been adapted for the screen countless times. But, there’s a lovely new fairy tale of a movie that presents a very different take on Cinderella. It’s a charming two-hour escape, tailor-made for the times we’re living in.

With Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, director and screenwriter Anthony Fabian has adapted Paul Gallico’s popular 1958 novel, effectively blending contemporary sensibilities and the visual delights of a period piece. (A version was made for television thirty years ago with Angela Lansbury.)

Our heroine, Mrs. Ada Harris, played by an irresistibly twinkling Lesley Manville, is neither beautiful nor young. She is kind, however, and like the fairy tale heroine, lives a life of drudgery. In 1950s London, Mrs. Harris works as a housecleaner for a set of entitled clients, each more insufferable than the next. There’s Giles Newcombe (Christian McKay) who introduces Mrs. Harris to a new “niece” every morning as he leaves his flat. There’s Pamela Penrose (Sanditon’s Rose Williams), an aspiring actress  and party girl. And, in the role that’s closest to an evil stepmother, there’s Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor, the infamous “Duckface” from Four Weddings and a Funeral), a woman who spends exorbitant sums on herself but cries poverty whenever Mrs. Harris attempts to collect her pitiful back wages.

Mrs. Harris has her mates, racetrack bookie Archie (Jason Isaacs) and BFF and fellow housecleaner Vi (Ellen Thomas, who coincidentally played the fairy godmother in 2019’s TV comedy After Ever After). Her beloved husband Eddie was reported missing in action more than a decade earlier, and although she knows it’s near impossible, she still hopes for his return. At the local pub, Archie comes up to her, presumably to ask her to dance. Instead, he asks her to watch his dogs so he can dance with a younger woman who doesn’t fancy them. “That’s what we are, Vi,” she tells her friend, “Invisible women.”

One ordinary day, she’s cleaning Lady Dant’s when she discovers a magnificent Christian Dior haute couture dress laid out on a chair. “Isn’t it divine?” Lady Dant purrs. “Five hundred pounds.” The number shocks Mrs. Harris, but soon she can think of nothing else. She saves every pence, plays the lottery, and places bets at the dog track, but can’t raise the funds. Just as she’s about to give up, the universe intervenes; she receives a war widow’s pension, a reward for turning in a bejeweled button, and a somewhat unethical but kindhearted gift from Archie. Mrs. Harris is off to Paris.

Providentially, Mrs. Harris arrives on the day that Dior is launching its tenth anniversary collection. Although the haughty salon Maîtresse Claudine Colbert (Isabelle Huppert) attempts to have the presumptuous house cleaner removed by security, Mrs. Harris’s gumption wins her the hearts of all of Dior’s workers as well as a chivalrous Monsieur Marquis (Lambert Wilson). She quickly befriends Dior’s beautiful model Natasha (Alba Baptista) and entrepreneurial accountant André (Lucas Bravo), whose mutual love for Sartre makes them perfect for each other — and makes Mrs. Harris a determined matchmaker. 

Like any fairy tale heroine, Mrs. Harris has to overcome obstacles, and (like any fairy tale heroine) her goodness and honesty, her purity and sense of purpose, pull her through. Winos at the Gare du Nord become her protectors. When she has no place to stay, an “out-of-town sister” provides a room. When a snobby tailor refuses to finish her dress, her own talents with a needle and thread win him over. When layoffs loom on Avenue Montaigne, she leads an uprising and alters the House of Dior’s history. And, in the end, back in London with the prize at last in her possession, a great act of generosity compels her new friends across the channel to ensure our heroine’s story has a very happily ever after ending.

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris runs nearly two hours, and I have to confess that I was smiling ear-to-ear through the entirety. Manville is so winsome; it is absolutely impossible not to root for her. The talented British character actor began her career in the 1970s and will take over for Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret in the upcoming season of The Crown. In 2017, she earned an Oscar nomination for her role in The Phantom Thread, another title with haute couture at its center, but with Manville in a murderously different role. Here, she proves herself as adept at romantic comedy as she is at drama. 

Everyone in Mrs. Harris is marvelous, as are the art direction (Attila Digi Kövari) and set decoration (Nóra Talmaier). The scenes of Paris are swoon-worthy, as — of course — are the stunning costumes. Three-time Oscar-winner Jenny Beavan (Cruella, Mad Max: Fury Road, A Room with a View) worked closely with the House of Dior to recreate the salon’s most sumptuous looks. (But, before you fall in love like Mrs. Harris, be advised that a single Dior haute couture dress today will easily cost you five or six figures.)

The dress may be the glorious centerpiece of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, but it’s a placeholder really for dreaming. And, the movie is filled with dreams. There’s the dream of owning an object of exquisite beauty. The dream of having one last adventure. The dream of finding romance. Even Paris’s striking garbage workers are dreaming of a better life. “You’re a dreamer,” Archie tells Mrs. Harris. “It’s as plain as the nose on your face.”

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris could have been made fifty or sixty years ago (although its gorgeous cinematography and inclusive casting would have suffered). It’s the sort of feel-good movie that is all too rare these days. But, with headlines that include climate crises, political unrest, economic disparity, a global pandemic, and unrelenting violence, it is as welcome today as it could ever be. 

If Mrs. Harris can dream, so can we.

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is now playing in theatres.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.