Producers: Anthony Fabian, Xavier Marchand and Guillaume Benski Director: Anthony Fabian Screenplay: Carroll Cartwright, Anthony Fabian, Olivia Hetreed and Keith Thompson Cast: Lesley Manville, Isabelle Huppert, Jason Isaacs, Ellen Thomas, Lambert Wilson, Alba Baptista, Lucas Bravo, Rose Williams, Anna Chancellor, Christian McKay, Freddie Fox, Bertrand Poncet, Roxane Duran, Guilaine Londez, Philippe Bertin and Vincent Martin Distributor: Focus Features
It would be difficult to find a greater contrast than that between the characters Lesley Manville plays in two films set in the world of haute couture. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” (2018), she was the cold, imperious sister and doorkeeper for her brother, a celebrated London designer (Daniel Day-Lewis). Now, in this adaptation of Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel, she’s a good-hearted London cleaning lady who shatters the formality of the firm of Christian Dior, presided over by an almost equally stern protector played by Isabelle Huppert. The difference in the two performances makes one appreciate anew the actress’ chameleon-like talent. And though both are set in the fifties, Anthony Fabian’s eager-to-please fable couldn’t be more unlike Anderson’s acerbic one either.
“Mr. Harris Goes to Paris” is a sweet-natured, old-fashioned charmer that’s not only set in the fifties but could easily have been made then. Manville is Ada Harris, whose husband, an RAF pilot, went missing during World War II; since then she’s made a living cleaning the flats of well-to-do folks like snobby Lady Dent (Anna Chancellor) and affable womanizer Giles Newcombe (Christian McKay). She lives a pretty sedate life, though her vivacious pal Vi (Ellen Thomas) is constantly encouraging her to go out for some fun, and local bookie Archie (Jason Isaacs) is always about in the pub, with a girl on his arm, when she does.
While dusting Lady Dant’s bedroom one day, Ada is transfixed by a glittery Christian Dior original in her wardrobe. She vows to buy herself one of the house’s creations, and begins saving up her pence to pay for a plane ride to Paris and a frock. There are bumps in the road as she struggles to collect what is for her an astronomical sum, but thanks to some luck and the help of friends, she succeeds despite the obstacles.
Arriving in France, she finds the capital in the midst of a strike by the garbage collectors, the streets littered with piles of refuse. But Paris is still a magical place in more ways than one. Through a mishap involving beautiful Dior model Natasha (Alba Baptista), she finds her way to the Dior showroom, to which, despite the attempts to shut her out by officious manager Claudine Colbert (Huppert) and snooty Madame Avallon (Guilaine Londez), the wife of the minister in charge of city sanitation, she gains admittance through the intervention of the suave Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson). And with help from Natasha and André Fauvel (Lucas Bravo), Colbert’s bookish, bespectacled aide, she’s induced to remain in the city while initially reluctant dressmaker M. Carré (Bertrand Poncet), prodded by Colbert’s giddy assistant Marguerite (Roxane Duran), undertakes to fill her order as expeditiously as possible.
Fauvel offers her an empty room in his apartment for her stay, and Mrs. Harris quickly becomes matchmaker between him and Natasha. (They bond over their mutual fascination with Existentialism. This is a fairy-tale, after all.) She also attracts further attention from the marquis, a relationship that might just blossom into a full-fledged trans-channel romance. And she becomes a leader in a democratization movement at Dior, helping to persuade Dior (Philippe Bertin) that Fauvel’s ideas about making the house’s fashions available to clientele of modest means is the answer to its financial problems (a change set against a broader workers’ victory over the Avallons). Ada won’t rest until even haughty Colbert is convinced change isn’t a bad thing.
As is obligatory in such stories, of course, there must be setbacks in the third act, and here they seem insurmountable, a result of Mrs. Harris’ impetuous kindness to airheaded would-be starlet Pamela Penrose (Rose Williams) back in London, where she’s returned with her treasured dress. But rest assured that Ada’s friends, new and old, will provide a triumphant ending.
A tale like this needs to look wonderful, and “Mrs. Harris” does. Pride of place goes to the costumes by Jenny Bevan, with recreations of the Dior designs of the fifties set against the “ordinary” clothes of the period. The production design by Luciana Arrighi is equally meticulous, though in a thoroughly unrealistic mode; with the help of visual effects supervisor Nikolas D’Andrade, it even manages to make the Budapest streets that provide many of the exteriors mesh with those shot in Paris and London. Felix Wiedemann’s cinematography gives the visuals a lush, luminous glow, while Barney Pilling’s editing moves matters along at an unhurried pace and Rael Jones adds to the mood with a lovely score that’s unafraid to swoon when appropriate.
But it’s Manville’s surprisingly moving portrait of a middle-aged “ugly duckling” transforming into a swan that makes this heaping helping of Capracorn so tasty. Happily she’s surrounded by able supporting players, with Huppert, as the intense Colbert, and Isaac, as raffish Archie, fitting their roles like a pair of gloves, while Baptista and Bravo prove a perfect match as an apparently unlikely couple. The rest—including a raft of typically first-rate British and French character actors—are excellent, with Thomas standing out as the vivacious Vi.
Fabian’s version of Gallico’s gossamer-thin Cinderella fairy-tale, with its fifties vision of a world changing for the better, will mostly appeal to audiences of a certain age, especially women. But it should be a pleasant watch for just about anyone but adolescent boys and older guys who haven’t outgrown their adolescence.