Adapted from the 1958 novel by Paul Galico, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris tells the story of a widowed cleaning lady who dreams of going to Paris to buy a Christian Dior Haute Couture gown. Directed by Anthony Fabian, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris stars Lesley Manville and Isabelle Huppert.
A house cleaner in 1957, war widow Ada Harris (Manville) stumbles upon an haute couture Christian Dior gown in her wealthy client’s wardrobe. Bewitched by its gorgeous pastel colour and elegant floral sequinning, Mrs Harris decides she’s going to fly all the way to Paris and get one of her own.
Little by little, Mrs Harris works hard to save up her money. Despite a small string of devastating setbacks, Mrs Harris successfully makes it to Paris and the House of Dior where, with the help of a handsome Marquis and to the displeasure of the house’s floor manager Claudine (Huppert), she is able to view the showing of Dior’s latest collection and fulfil her dream.
Ada Harris is exactly what you’d imagine when asked to picture a pleasant old British lady. Alone since her husband went missing in action during the height of the war, Mrs Harris often turns to his spirit for divine guidance.
Unable to quite let go of his memory, Mrs Harris holds herself back from enjoying what’s left of her life, often choosing to sit on the side-lines and blend into the background. Unable to allow herself the spotlight, Mrs Harris’ trip to Paris is an experiment in self-care unlike anything she’s undertaken before. Her arrival at the House of Dior is met with immediate disdain from Claudine and the well-to-do patrons but despite this, she continues to show those around her, such as the models and design house staff, her delicate and good-natured personality.
Thematically, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris deals expressly with pride and appearances. Mrs Harris is a dedicated worker, often acknowledged by those close to her as being often too kind-hearted but frequently looked down on by her employers.
Despite her station in life and circumstances post-war, Mrs Harris holds a lot of pride in herself and her capabilities. When she lands in Paris, we are exposed to the stark juxtaposition of the city’s reputation and state of being. In the middle of a worker’s strike, the city is littered with uncollected garbage; this is a stark opposite to the divine frocks on display inside the fashion house, significantly minimising the city’s reputation as a place of luxury and class.
And yet, some of the patrons of Dior continue to behave as though they are superior to Mrs Harris in every way. The core lesson here, of course, is that money and social standing have no direct influence on your quality as a person. Throughout her time in Paris, as she socialises with the house staff and attends her appointments with the head dressmaker, Mrs Harris softens the cold hearts of the Parisians and slowly each of them begins to open themselves up to the notion of having a friend like her in their life.
Perhaps the best thing about Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is the film’s sense of optimism and magic. Mrs Harris is just a quintessentially good person, and there’s not a single moviegoer who could watch this film and not wish for her to succeed with her dream.
Watching her consistently overcome her hardships, whether on her own or with help from those around her, is so satisfying; Manville injects this extremely warm energy into her portrayal, giving audiences the sense that there is a true and harmless joy in having and chasing dreams regardless of your age. Huppert, initially a stereotypical Parisian, also unveils a softness to her character that makes her impossible to dislike, even as she acts as the villain for much of the film’s runtime. Claudine’s ‘redemption arc’ is pretty rushed, but this film’s only purpose is to provide audiences with a light-hearted and happy tale uncluttered by extreme character development, so this in no way hinders the film’s impact.
Driven by Mrs Harris’ unwavering goodness and Lesley Manville’s infectiously pleasant acting, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is 120 minutes of pure happiness and innocent enjoyment that people of all ages will put on their rewatch lists for when the serotonin needs a little boosting.