In mid-August a big cardboard standee of the Mrs Harris Goes to Paris poster was placed fairly prominently in the foyer of my local Cineworld. Now every time I file past the likeness of Lesley Manville clutching a gorgeous green Christian Dior gown I feel compelled to adopt the classic gravelly “trailer voice” and add a silly tagline: “From the people who brought you Inside Chernobyl with Ben Fogle…”
Doing something slightly daft just because it cheers you up – and not really caring if anyone else looks down on you for it – is very much in keeping with the spirit of this warm-hearted period fable, adapted from Paul Gallico’s 1958 novella about a British charwoman who upends her normal routine of drudgery to pursue French elegance and beauty. (Gallico, an American sportswriter-turned-author who used to try and physically compete with his interview subjects, has at least one other notable movie connection: he wrote the novel on which 1972 disaster classic The Poseidon Adventure was based.)
When we first meet Mrs Ada Harris she is making her own way in late-1950s London. While she clearly misses her husband Eddie – a soldier MIA in the Second World War – Ada seems to value her independence despite the long hours of commuting and clearing up after self-absorbed rich folk. A diligent worker who keeps forensic track of her meagre finances, she does allow herself a few small pleasures: the odd half-pint in the pub, doing the pools every week and enjoying a mildly flirtatious friendship with an Irish bookie named Archie (Jason Isaacs).
So far, so salt-of-the-earth. But when Ada sees a ravishing Dior evening gown acquired by her snobbiest aristocratic client, everything snaps into focus. After somehow saving up the requisite hundreds of pounds, she will cross the channel to the House of Dior on Avenue Montaigne to buy her own Dior dress. Her friends are sceptical but ultimately supportive and before long she is – somewhat improbably – on her way to Paris.
How will this kindly cleaning lady navigate the haughty world of haute couture? Certainly, Dior director Claudine (played with death-stare condescension by Isabelle Huppert) seems determined to swat away such a low-status nuisance. But Ada’s kind-hearted, straight-talking manner endears her to the hidden army of Dior fitters, dyers and cutters who actually create the beautiful garments. Her rolls of hard cash also appeal to shy accountant André (Lucas Bravo from Netflix’s Emily in Paris, trying and failing to conceal his hunkiness behind a pair of Clark Kent glasses), who is striving to keep Dior afloat while carrying a torch for the company’s top model Natasha (Alba Baptista). Mrs Harris herself catches the eye of a seemingly debonair French marquis (Lambert Wilson) with a luxuriant moustache.
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These romantic subplots and follow-your-dream sentiments could all too easily have been whipped up into a sugary French fancy. Director Anthony Fabian certainly cannot resist adding the occasional fantastical flourish: when Ada finally sees a gown that calls out to her she glides frictionlessly towards it as if in a romantic dream. But Manville brings innate grit as well as charm to Mrs Harris. She might be as thoroughly decent as Paddington, but Ada is not some naive pushover: she stands her ground even in the face of the most withering French aloofness. It is a wonderful performance that contrasts marvellously with Manville’s other signature role in a story of 1950s couture, as the formidable Cyril in 2017’s Phantom Thread, where she icily protected Daniel Day-Lewis’s House of Woodcock from perceived threats both foreign and domestic.