Film Review – Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris
Well, isn’t this just lovely?
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (2022) is such a sweet and endearing tale that it borders on a fairy tale. Perhaps it is. Based on Paul Gallico’s novel, the film takes an everyday person and whisks them off into a fantasy world. This is a universe where kindness reigns supreme – where acts of generosity are returned tenfold, and any funny business gets promptly brushed aside. Characters help one another out of the goodness of their own hearts. Any obstacles are overcome by seemingly divine intervention. This is a story of dreamers fulfilling their greatest wishes. Is any of this realistic? No, but as a character mentions: In times like these, dreams might be exactly what we need.
That is the mindset for one Ada Harris (Lesley Manville). Ada – who lost her husband in WWII – works as a cleaning lady in 1950s London. One day while cleaning her employer’s home, Ada comes across a gorgeous Christian Dior dress. Overcome by its aura, Ada makes it her personal mission to purchase a dress of her own. Guided by miraculous circumstances, Ada makes her way to the House of Dior in Paris, where she quickly makes her presence felt. Her earnest – albeit slightly naïve – approach in securing a dress immediately draws allies, such as Dior employee André (Lucas Bravo), model Pamela (Rose Williams), and the suave Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson). Of course, she also makes a few adversaries, such as manager Claudine Colbert (Isabelle Huppert), who believes Dior dresses are too sophisticated for a person of Ada’s class.
But this isn’t really about the dress, is it? Above all else, Ada’s journey to Paris acts as a metaphor for her own self-discovery. The writing (Anthony Fabian, Carroll Cartwright, Keith Thompson, Olivia Hetreed) and direction (Fabian) structure the narrative as an examination of Ada’s personal growth. For decades, Ada worked for the benefit of others, cleaning their homes and mending their clothes with efficiency and skill. But working for other people has given Ada an aimless sense of herself. As she describes to her friend and fellow cleaning lady Vi (Ellen Thomas), their profession has made them the “invisible women.” Once she sees that Dior dress in person, Ada assigns it as her sole motivation to step out and take a risk. No one ordered her to go to Paris, she saved her own money to purchase the dress for herself. This dynamic goes far beyond simple materialism. The dress is a secondary necessity – it acts as a means for Ada to take charge of her identity and exist under her own terms.
Lesley Manville gives a wonderful performance in the titular role. She plays Mrs. Ada Harris with warmth and gusto. Ada has enough sense to understand how unconventional her situation is, but with enough moxie that we never worry that she may be stepping into dangerous waters. The character is a far cry removed from the last fashion-centered film Manville was in, Phantom Thread (2017). In that, she was cold, fierce, and solid like a rock. Here, Manville is all soft edges, delightful in her own unique way. She exhibits a little Mary Poppins in how she bursts onto the scene and disrupts the normal order of things. The way she questions and challenges typically accepted beliefs helps everyone move outside of their social boxes. She wins those who meet her with her friendliness – whether it be a straggler taking residence at a local train station or Monsieur Dior himself. It also helps that Ada is blunt with her honesty. Her gentle nudging of André helps him pursue professional advancements as well as open his eyes to the obvious romance he has with Pamela. Even Claudine, who is steadfast in her old ways of thinking, operates as a bystander to Ada’s growing influence.
Felix Wiedemann’s cinematography paints the visuals with a hazy, dreamy glow. Whenever Ada comes upon a Dior dress, she falls into a state of reverie where everything shimmers in bright light. When she is given a tour of House of Dior, strolling by works stations and mannequins displaying the latest designs, the camera follows Ada in closeup, tracking her around the room as though she were floating in air. In one sequence, Ada sits amongst a crowd as models show off Dior’s numerous line ups of gowns and dresses. Ada witnesses each new reveal as though she has come across a buried treasure. The camera dives into slow motion to reflect Ada’s point of view, highlighting every jewel, stitch, and fabric as it goes by. Fashion enthusiasts will have a grand old time here, not just from the Dior-centric designs, but from the film’s costuming overall (by Jenny Beavan). They all contribute to a visceral texture, delineating characters, places, and cultural differences. If anything, part of the joy of the picture is in seeing what is captured within the frame.
Detractors may argue this to be too earnest and sugary for its own good, and they might have a point. How luck breaks so often in Ada’s favor pushes the limit of believability. If this world were to step a little bit closer in resemblance to our real one, Ada’s good fortune would probably run out rapidly. We are asked to accept that anyone she runs across would gladly lend a helping hand, or that money falls into her lap as though out of thin air. I didn’t have a problem with any of this, as the production lets us know early on that this belongs in a fantasy realm. But even then, Ada continuously finds herself at the right place at the right time. When things don’t go her way, the universe has a knack for balancing things out.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris was a pleasure to watch from beginning to end. Even the hardest cynic will find it difficult not to fall for its charms. Just like the costumes we see, the film paints its aesthetics with inviting colors. Yet, it understands that beneath the surface is where the soul truly lies.