“It has not only warmth but a drive; this is a movie that takes itself seriously in quiet but important ways, with great consideration of its title character and who she is as a person.”
by Ken Bakely
Much has been made of how Matthew Fabian’s Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is very nice and very relaxed, and how reassuring and easy to watch it is. And all of this is true, but that alone isn’t what makes it so effective and involving. It has not only warmth but a drive; this is a movie that takes itself seriously in quiet but important ways, with great consideration of its title character and who she is as a person. This is helped immensely by Lesley Manville’s performance as Ada Harris, as she gives the character the goodness, strength, and resilience that ensures all through the various stages of the story, in a series of twists and turns that casually amount to surprisingly big swings and payoffs. In 1950s London, Mrs. Harris is a cleaner who is taken for granted by her wealthy and indifferent employers, contrasting sharply with her working class friends Vi (Ellen Thomas) and Archie (Jason Isaacs). She is grieving the disappearance of her husband during the war, unable to fully accept his demise without closure. But when a long-delayed survivor’s pension is paid out to her, Ada thinks big, and is able to take some time for herself – a rare and luxurious event. She eventually heads to Paris, where she slides into the world of high fashion, deciding to shell out a big sum for a lavish Dior dress (there are a number of great outfits in this movie, excellently designed by Jenny Beavan). But the custom-made outfit is associated with not only money but prestige, and executive Claudine (Isabelle Huppert) seems hell-bent on gatekeeping this unknown Englishwoman from closing the deal.
Yet this is not the story of adversaries, or even particularly strong disagreements. The script – co-written by Fabian, Carroll Cartwright, Keith Thompson, and Olivia Hetreed, based on Paul Gallico’s novel Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris (a slightly superior title) – explores a vast array of characters and situations, all through the lens of Ada’s adventures. There is Claudine, sure, but there is also André (Lucas Bravo), the sympathetic accountant whom Ada tries to set up with model Natasha (Alba Baptista). It’s important to recognize that it’s not as if the path to getting the dress or doing anything else is all this is about. This is a story about Mrs. Harris (Going to Paris) and embarking on a mostly organic, largely free-flowing journey toward developing a new and real sense of self-identity. She is determined and headstrong, realizing how to express her worth after a life spent in the service class, where she was expected to provide invisible duty to wealthy patrons for meager remuneration. It is now that she’s even able to exist on their level, and it’s that autonomy which causes the most shock, on either side of the Channel. The way that the material approaches these ideas is certainly light and fluffy, befitting of its gentle tone, but Fabian is – again – serious about it. This is not to say the film is humorless (there is an effortlessly graceful touch, if few overt jokes) but that it’s very honest with itself and the viewer. It’s very sincere about who this character is, why she’s doing what she does, and why it’s only right that she has the dignity and liberty to enjoy and express herself as an individual.
This is the encompassing philosophy that spreads throughout the story. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris seldom structures its plotting in such a way that it needs to use strict setups and payoffs to further its goals, though the film reaches a quasi-climax through one particularly pointed subplot which helps bring the deeper heart of the movie’s beliefs to the forefront. And yet there’s also so much of the film that succeeds when the movie is just allowed to be, staying close to Manville’s brilliant work and letting things go from there. Under those parameters, Fabian gets the point across pretty succinctly, and its charm sometimes feels a little reduced at nearly two hours. But it’s pretty rare to feel like the plot is actively wandering off in any direction that makes us lose interest or puts itself at the risk of losing its meaningful core. This is a lovely achievement, always a little brighter and livelier and sweeter than anything you could recognize as real, certainly. And although the film’s appearance alone pops with a grand and glossy sheen, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is even richer when it closely follows the deeply human ideas and observations of this story, and the bold and spirited ethos that guides it all.