Lesley Manville heads back to the Golden Age of Couture, an era she previously visited five years ago in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread”, to play a widowed cleaning lady who dreams of one day owning a Christian Dior dress. She scrapes together her measly earnings, plays the lottery, and tries her luck at gambling to raise the $500 needed to buy the custom gown. Of course, she hits a few snags along the way in the charming fairy tale that reminds us to keep on dreaming.
Based on Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel, the light-hearted film from director Anthony Fabian is a modern-day “Cinderella” that takes our protagonist Ada Harris (Manville) away from scrubbing floors and polishing furniture for her well-to-do London clients and thrusts her into the glamorous haute couture world of the Paris fashion scene as in the House of Dior.
The year is 1957, Ada’s beloved husband Eddie never returned from the war and so she spends her days with neighbor and best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas), the two get up at the crack of dawn and ride the bus together as they begin their day as housecleaners. They occasionally spend their downtime at the social club for drinks and dancing, although Ada usually just sulks while reminiscing about Eddie.
The social club is where we first meet Archie (Jason Isaac), an average bloke still popular with the ladies. He works at the dog track as a bookie which means he’s a gambler and while he’s surrounded by women who are much younger, there’s something about Mrs. Harris that catches his eye. Could he be this story’s Prince Charming? Maybe, but there’s competition. I’ll get to that later.
One day while cleaning the home of socialite Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor), Ada notices a sparkling Dior dress laying out on a chair. Funny that her employer can afford designer gowns, yet each time Ada asks for wages owed, she gets the runaround. Seeing the dress, Ada is empowered to stop pleasing everyone around her and start doing for herself. She may not be rich but that doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy the nicer things in life, so Ada begins to scrimp and save until she has enough money to fly to Paris and purchase her own Dior dress.
Fabian spends the first half of the film introducing the audience to our down-to-earth protagonist. Ada is a hard worker with a wonderful disposition who tries to please everyone, not just her employers. It’s not a very glamorous life, she’s stuck in a “Groundhog Day” blue-collar loop, but we know that things are going to get better and when they do “Mrs. Harris” turns into a delightful romp.
The fairy tale begins as Ada lands in Paris and heads straight to the House of Dior to purchase her dress. Along the way, she befriends a trio of vagabonds who share their paper sack hooch and when she falls asleep at the bus station you just know that she’s going to wake up in time to find all her belongings have been stolen. But alas, this is not that kind of film, the light-hearted story finds one of the drifters, who is quite charming, escorting Ada to the fashion designer house wishing her good luck. I’m getting serious Garry Marshall vibes. His spirit is all over this film.
The wonderful Isabelle Huppert plays a role similar to Manville’s “Phantom Thread” character, she’s Claudine Colbert, the stoic business manager who keeps everyone at Dior in line. As Manville’s antagonist, it’s an even match. When Ada walks in to purchase her gown (cash in hand), Claudine tries to have security escort her out of the shop. You can’t just walk off the street into Dior to buy a dress! Can you? Well, lucky for Ada, the chivalrous Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson), oversees the commotion and invites Ada to be his special guest at the unveiling of Dior’s new collection giving Archie back home competition for the Prince Charming title.
Ada is wined and dined in “Paree” and eventually takes on a Jimmy Stewart “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” role as she stands up for the rights of blue-collar workers who take to the streets of France and protest. Get out of the way Norma Rae, Ada Harris is here to save many a career! That includes Dior accountant Andre Fauvel (Lucas Bravo) and the beautiful face of the fashion house, model Natasha (Alba Baptista).
“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is a charming fairy tale that will put a big smile on your face, you can’t help falling in love with Manville’s character. It also works so well because the story never gets too comfortable, Ada is confronted with one roadblock after another right up to the finale which by the way is dazzling. Manville and Huppert are terrific, the supporting cast is enjoyable, and despite all the hurdles our heroine must jump over, when everything falls into place it’s so unbelievably smooth, still, this one is for the dreamers.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in theaters