Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris Review: Simply Chic

Lesley Manville gets a welcome star turn in easygoing escapist lark

Who expected Lesley Manville to spawn an haute couture cinematic universe? After wowing cinephiles with devastating turns in the kitchen sink dramas of Mike Leigh, Manville is back in fashion (not that she ever went out) with Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. The film returns her to the world of high fashion after her Oscar-nominated perf in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. However, where her quick-witted fashionista Cyril cut zingers as sharply as she snipped gowns, her Ada Harris is sweetly genteel. Manville’s one of the best actors in the business, so it’s a delight to see her relish a leading role even if the material is as thin as chiffon. Move over, Gentleminions: this one’s for the ladies who lunch!

Moreover, the pleasure of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris might simply be its ‘treat yourself’ escapism. The dowdy Mrs. Harris stumbles upon a ravishing Dior gown whilst cleaning up for a well-to-do customer. There’s enchantment in Manville’s eyes as Ada gazes upon the gown. Lavishly outfitted with jewelled flowers in striking lavender, the dress is like wearing springtime. It’s a burst of colour in Mrs. Harris’s washed-out world. Following an act of love at first sight, she vows to get a Dior dress of her own.

Unfortunately, a Dior dress costs 500 pounds (and that’s in the 1950s!) when Mrs. Harris makes mere schillings per week. She therefore pinches every penny and saves every dime to secure a trip to Paris. She’s convinced that a gown, or “frock” as she calls it, can lift her from her working class war-widow blues. The film, adapting Paul Gallico’s novel Mrs. ’Arris Goes to Paris (with four screenwriters!), admittedly sees Ada undergo way too many predictably silly contrivances to get her cash. But, spoiler alert: Mrs. Harris indeed goes to Paris.


En Paris

When she lands in the city of lights, though, the film hardly presents a romanticized view of Paris. Look not for the baguette-sporting gaiety of post-card perfect France. Ada arrives when the streets are strewn with trash and a French Revolution-style riot is brewing about 15 years early. The backdrop of the film might be what Manville fans expect of her choices. Although Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris involves a woman buying a dress, it’s not merely an exercise in feel-good materialism. As soon as she sets foot in the garbage-laden streets of Paris, a wine-guzzling hobo advises her, “In France, the worker is king.”


There’s a good socialist spirit to the picture as Mrs. Harris harnesses the decidedly French power of protest. When she visits the House of Dior and the haughty housemistress Mme. Colbert (a spectacularly cast Isabelle Huppert) refuses to sell her a dress even though she comes with cash in hand, Ada demonstrates that she’s not as daft as she seems. Class tensions are cinched tighter when a dashing Marquis (Lambert Wilson) invites Mrs. Harris to be his honoured guest at the fashion show, much to Mme. Colbert’s disapproval. A snooty client, Mme. Avallon (Guilaine Londez), wrinkles her nose at the thought of sitting courtside with a commoner. She makes it her mission to buy (on credit) whatever gown Ada desires.

And, oh—is it ever easy to see why Mrs. Harris adores every gown in Paris! The camera zooms and moves in tight on Manville’s expressive face as pieces of the Dior collection buoy her spirit. The gowns, moreover, are immaculately-tailored recreations by Jenny Beaven (Cruella) of the Dior line, made with the participation of the House itself. These are indeed heavenly sights.


Pretty Women

Mrs. Harris inevitably encounters more hurdles when she wants the dress. So accustom to off-the-rack stuff from the department store, she further offends Mme. Colbert by asking for the specific dress sported by the petite model to be wrapped up so she can catch the next flight home. Cue some more fish-out-of-water sketches as Mrs. Harris stays a while in Paris. The awkward philosophy-reading Dior accountant, André Fauvel, (Lucas Bravo), is struck by Mrs. Harris’s determination and invites her to stay during her fittings. In fact, Mrs. Harris inspires all the behind-the-scenes seamstresses, models, and garment girls of the House of Dior. They see in her the accessibility of haute couture: what once has beyond reach can now hang from their very shoulders.

Admittedly, the writers seem to have binged Pretty Woman excessively during pre-production. The terse exchanges between Manville and Huppert could easily accompany Julia Roberts’ shopping spree on Rodeo Drive. However, there’s a Pretty Woman appeal to Mrs. Harris that’s as irresistible as champagne with strawberries. The Dior dress, like Vivian’s couture in Pretty Woman, speaks to the way we present ourselves and feel visible. Ada’s Dior dress is a chic assertion that she has every right to feel as good as an arrogant Parisian does. And when Manville descends a staircase in a dress worthy of the Oscars, one can forgive the film’s, er, ill-fitting ending.


It also helps the film greatly that Huppert humanizes Mme. Colbert. The Dior dress represents much to her too—it’s a brave face with which she shields her own insecurities. Huppert is a perfect foil to Manville with her delightfully icy comic timing. In their hands, Mrs. Harris is a fab, feel-good strut down the runway. As far as fashion flicks go, the House of Dior fares much better than the House of Gucci.


Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris opens in theatres July 15.