Photograph: Dávid Lukács
  • Film
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Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

3 out of 5 stars

Lesley Manville shines in this tidy celebration of haute couture, invisible labour and kindness

Cyrus Cohen

Time Out says

Four years after receiving an Oscar nomination as the steely Cyril Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, Lesley Manville returns to the realm of ’50s high fashion with an exuberant, effervescent lead performance that flaunts her full comedic and dramatic range. 

Adapting American novelist Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel ‘Mrs. ’Arris Goes to Paris,’ director Anthony Fabian and his co-writers fashion a whimsical retelling fit for the modern era, in which Manville plays a good-natured London maid who travels to the elitist ateliers of Paris in the hope of purchasing a Christian Dior gown.

Any sense of triteness or materialism in that storyline quickly fades as Fabian and co impart their film with distinct emphasis on the invisible labour of women, solidarity between workers, and the importance of kindness. The scenes in Paris are set amid a strike by the city’s garbage workers; trash litters the street, not as a nuisance to Mrs Harris or her journey, but instead as a fitting symbol of the elite being challenged by collective organising.

In the chic halls of Dior, a similar sentiment brews amongst staff as potential firings loom. In a side-plot, two characters, model Natasha (Alba Baptista) and accountant André (Lucas Bravo), directly invoke Sartre as they discuss the nature of being and whether one is defined by what they do or own. Mrs Harris herself exemplifies the film’s morals and message: the quality of one’s character will always matter more than status, wealth, or possessions.

Told with the narrative beats of a romance, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris reorients the genre so that the central love interest is not a man (although Harris does have multiple suitors) but a dress. The first Dior outfit onscreen is a glitzy, embellished, knee-length purple number owned by Harris’s conceited employer, and the accompanying cinematography and sound, dizzying and dreamlike, underscore that this is love at first sight. 

Every garment, meticulously recreated by Oscar-winner Jenny Beavan, seamlessly transports us into the luxurious world of Dior. The remarkable beauty of Beavan’s costumes and the thoughtful way they’re presented establishes a unique tension as we contemplate the material, financial, emotional and artistic value of an object and the corresponding labour involved in producing it.

Lesley Manville delivers an effervescent performance that flaunts her comedic and dramatic range
Where the film begins to falter is in its easy payoff and underuse of Isabelle Huppert, Jason Isaacs and Ellen Thomas, who do their best to bring nuance to flat supporting roles. The film’s narrative arc is relatively formulaic, and there’s few surprises in where each of its various threads end up (even, or especially, when they come together in the most convenient ways).
But are we watching Mrs Harris Goes to Paris for realistic narrative unpredictability or to see Lesley Manville wear stunning Dior recreations in an idealised dramedy about class? For much of this film’s target audience, the answer to that question is the latter and their expectations will be met. The rest will find Manville’s reliable magnificence more than enough to sustain their interest.

In US theaters Jul 15. Out in the UK Sep 30.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Anthony Fabian
  • Screenwriter:Anthony Fabian, Carroll Cartwright, Olivia Hetreed, Keith Thompson
  • Cast:
    • Lesley Manville
    • Jason Isaacs
    • Anna Chancellor
    • Freddie Fox
    • Isabelle Huppert
    • Ellen Thomas
    • Christian McKay
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