‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’: A quest driven by love and fashion

( PG ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )
David Lukacs/ADA Films Ltd./Focus Features
London charwoman Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) marvels at a client’s Dior dress in “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.”

“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is a pleasingly old-fashioned movie about a London charwoman suddenly smitten by high fashion. The object of her infatuation: a dress by Dior.

Lesley Manville’s Ada Harris is certainly primed for entrancement. Although she bemoans the loss of her soldier husband, long declared missing in World War II, she’s no brooder. Despite, or perhaps because of, her lowly station in life, she has a gift for friendship. She’s that rarity in the movies – a dreamer you can actually believe in.

Based on a popular 1958 Paul Gallico novel and directed and co-written by Anthony Fabian, the film is unapologetically fanciful. In an interview, Manville described it as being “like a musical, without the music.” At times, I wish it had been a musical. Some scenes seem ready-made for it, like the first time Ada sets eyes on the ravishing Dior dress hanging in the wardrobe of a snooty client and goes all gaga. This is when she decides she must travel to the Dior showroom in Paris to buy a gown, even if to get there means scrimping and betting at the racetrack. 

Why We Wrote This

Based on a popular novel from the 1950’s, the film “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” takes a sartorial romp and imbues it with an undercurrent of resilience and goodness.

Her ally is fellow charwoman Vi (the spirited Ellen Thomas). Their scenes together have a lived-in conviviality. When they are hanging out at a local bar, under the watchful eye of their flirty buddy Archie (Jason Isaacs), the rigors of their workday instantly evaporate. But Ada knows she deserves better in life. She tells Vi they are “invisible women.”

Ada’s desire to be visible isn’t about vanity. She wants to own a Dior because it validates the specialness she feels about herself. There’s also a suggestion that her passion for the dress is her way of falling in love again without being unfaithful to the memory of her beloved husband.

Ada’s introduction to Paris is too conventionally mounted (perhaps because Budapest, Hungary, stands in for Paris), but because we see the city through her eyes, it has sparkle. 

Still, when she arrives at the Dior emporium expecting to buy a dress and quickly return to London, she’s rebuffed. It’s the day of a tony fashion show, and the last thing the imperious Dior executive Madame Colbert (an expertly snippy Isabelle Huppert) wants is a working-class interloper in her midst. Undaunted, Ada dumps out her handbag full of cash and won’t back off. A kindly marquis (Lambert Wilson), who might as well have “eligible bachelor” tattooed on his forehead, comes to her rescue. So do André (Lucas Bravo), a shy Dior assistant, and Natasha (Alba Baptista), a model for whom André secretly pines. (Natasha would much rather read Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” than preen.) 

Because the dress Ada chooses will require time to alter, she stays on in Paris, helped along by her newfound friends. She sees the best in people, and so it seems right that she should become a matchmaker for André and Natasha. 

The filmmakers don’t ignore the rue that is also part of Ada’s world; they just don’t dwell on it. She may come across as a chatty English eccentric, but she has a resilience that gives the movie some much-needed ballast. When Ada leads the Dior workers in a strike for better working conditions, she’s entirely in character, just as she is when she glimpses Christian Dior himself and exclaims, “He looks like my milkman!”

Manville carries it all off effortlessly. I have long admired her chameleonic gifts, in such films as “Phantom Thread,” where she played the brittle sister of the fashion designer portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, or Mike Leigh’s “All or Nothing,” where her flighty intensity seared the screen. In some ways, Manville’s performance as Ada is more challenging than either of those, for she is playing a character who, without ever descending to easy sentiment, radiates goodness. At its best, that’s what this film does too.

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “Mrs. Harris goes to Paris” opens on July 15. It is rated PG for suggestive material, language, and smoking. 

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