Review: Designer Dresses, Mid-Century Paris and the Endearing Charm of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

Based on the 1958 novel by nearly the same name (the book drops the H for a bit of added working-class cockney flair), Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is only just now receiving the big screen treatment. With the help of a handful of screenwriters (Carroll Cartwright, Keith Thompson and Olivia Hetreed), director Anthony Fabian (also credited as a screenwriter), no shortage of gorgeous scenery (both on the runway and around mid-century Paris) and a truly delightful performance from Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread, Maleficent) at its center, this fairly conservative, simple story elevates to something joyful and celebratory even as it acknowledges the difficult journey to get there.

Manville is Mrs. Ada Harris, a war widow even if she won’t admit it to herself; there hasn’t been word from her husband in years, but she hold out hope that a long lost letter from him will arrive someday. In the meantime, she lives alone in a little garden-level flat and works as a housekeeper cleaning up for the posh likes of people who either barely notice she’s there or take advantage of her until she’s got nothing left to give. While cleaning the grand flat of a rich woman who hasn’t paid her in weeks, Ada discovers a designer dress strewn across a chair. It’s a Christian Dior number, and it truly is breathtaking, lavenders and pinks all beaded and sparkling from its sweetheart neckline to its knee-length hem. In an instant, Ada decides she needs something good in her life—nay, deserves it—and sets about pocketing every spare tuppence and pound she can muster until she has the £500 a dress like that costs.

Once in Paris, Mrs. Harris (it’s just fun to say!) is not exactly the typical clientele of Maison Dior, and house matron Claudine Colbert (the divine Isabelle Huppert) is not shy about saying so. But soon, Mrs. Harris is choosing her custom gown, on the arm of a dashing Marquis (Lambert Wilson) and becoming fast friends with Dior model (and Audrey Hepburn doppelgänger) Natasha (Alba Baptista) and Dior house accountant André (Lucas Bravo). Back home, her best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas) holds down the fort cleaning Ada’s homes while local bookie Archie (Jason Isaacs) pines for the widow while flirting with every other girl in sight.

Mrs. Harris has about a week to wait for her new dress (and a rush job at that), and in the meantime she endears herself to nearly everyone, her can-do attitude and indefatigable optimism practically infectious. But all is not tailored hems and cinched waists for Mrs. Harris, and its in her darker, sadder moments that we get to really feel like we know Ada as a full person. There’s nothing particularly special or remarkable out her life; in fact, one could argue she doesn’t have much at all to be so positive about. But that’s what makes our Mrs. Harris such a gem: she chooses to be happy, chooses to see the bright side, chooses to celebrate beauty and go after what she wants. Sure, there are days she’d rather stay wrapped under the covers in bed, but that’s what friends like Vi and Archie are for, there to pick her up when she’s down and get her back on track.

As filmmaking goes, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris feels a bit like a polished-up Netflix Original (you’re not the only one thinking Emily in Paris); certain moments are obviously (painfully) green-screened rather than shot on location, and setting the story during a city-wide trash collection strike offers a flimsy but helpful subplot that gives Mrs. Harris some semblance of a foil. Even the storyline loses some of its steam, as Ada returns from Paris with her new dress and things don’t go quite according to plan from there (for Ada, at least; you might, like me, see it coming a mile away). It’s Manville and her endless charm that make the film something special, particularly surrounded as she is by reliable winners like Huppert and Isaacs.

There’s been much talk lately about whether audiences are really ready to come back to movie theaters since COVID. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris offers none of the big screen action or out-of-this-world drama that other blockbusters this summer might. Instead, this one is worth heading out to the cinema for (mask up, just to be safe) if only to escape for a couple of hours into a winsome world of designer dresses and our heroine’s gung-ho gumption.

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is now in theaters.

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Lisa Trifone