Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris Is the Summer Vacation We Need
You’ll no doubt be pleased to learn that in the new film Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (in theaters July 15), Mrs. Harris does, in fact, go to Paris. In that sense, director Anthony Fabian’s adaptation of the Paul Gallico novel entirely fulfills its promise. The honesty of its title is not the film’s only virtue, though. Fabian has made a nice little movie filled with the kind of wistful whimsy we so often crave of period British films—a pip-pip moxie that is, for all its chipper good cheer, not ignorant of the sadder stuff of life.
Lesley Manville plays the titular role, a London housecleaner (often relied on for emotional support by her clients, some of whom are dreadfully slow to pay her) who has lost a sense of herself. That’s mostly because she’s been waiting, in vain, for her husband to come back from the war, now ten or so years past. He was flying a mission for the RAF when his plane went down in Europe. He’s technically still missing in action, but only Mrs. Harris, whose friends call her Ada, believes he could still come back.
When Ada finally receives word that her beloved is actually dead, she is both freed and unmoored. There’s a bit of war widow money to be collected and that, coupled with a lucky turn at a kind of local lottery, gives Ada a wild notion that takes firm root in her mind: she’s going to make her way to Paris to buy a custom Dior dress, one quite like the one so blithely owned by her wealthiest (and worst) client.
There is no deep meaning to this dress. Ada is not a repressed fashionista; there isn’t some dead relative who had their own Dior frock that Ada pines for. She just wants something special in her life, something she’s earned by dint of hard work and, sure, the everyday luck of being around in the world for long enough. Manville shrewdly draws a working class hero who is neither supernaturally good nor saintly in her humble penury. She’s just a regular lady who wishes to do an irregular thing, and so she does.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is a fish out of water comedy that finds the fish helping all the new creatures she meets on her journey out of the pond. There is a beautiful, sad-eyed model, Natasha (Alba Baptista), who must find her way, with Ada’s help, into the arms of the handsome André (Lucas Bravo, from Emily in Paris—Bravo is only allowed to be in things with “Paris” in the title). There is the haughty atelier manager, Claudine (Isabelle Huppert), who is gradually loosened up by Ada’s determined sunniness. And there is the storied fashion house itself, caught in the stuffiness of the past as the 1960s loom ever closer. Ada provides a fresh new perspective on who Dior’s clothes (beautifully re-created for the film by costume master Jenny Beavan) are made for. Which is to say, they’re for all ladies—those who can afford them, anyway.
If the film feels awfully familiar as it glides along these narrative rails, that same-ness is enlivened and given polish by Manville. She bustles along purposefully, miles away from her sly fashionista in Phantom Thread and even further from the murderous matriarch of 2020’s under-seen domestic thriller Let Him Go. Finally this muse of Mike Leigh’s is getting some chances to show a wider audience the breadth of her range on film.
Huppert, for her part, is playing a more minor role than one might hope—though, a little of her outsized, borderline cartoony performance goes a long way. After watching the film with a colleague, we joked that Huppert could just as easily have been thwarting the New York City hotel stay of one Kevin McCallister, so overstated is her officious, imperious villainy. She stands in stark contrast to Manville’s measured work, which continually surprises with its restraint and shading.
It’s lovely to see someone of Manville’s stature treat this airy lark so thoughtfully; she guides Mrs. Harris toward a genuinely poignant conclusion, one in which the Euro fantasy fades but a more sustainable, more local contentment begins to bloom. Not so much a testament to conspicuous consumption as it is to the necessity of occasionally shaking up the routine of one’s life, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is a nourishing, if fleeting, summer holiday that can be enjoyed for far less than the cost of couture.