Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris (2022)

ANTHONY FABIAN

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

////USA/, 2022. , , , , , , . Screenplay by Anthony Fabian, , , , based on the novel Mrs. ‘Arris Goes To Paris by . Cinematography by . Produced by , Anthony Fabian, . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

[Information in this review could constitute spoilers]

The overuse of Paris as the cinematic representation of romantic longing might turn you off from wanting to see this elegant comedy, but there’s enough richness in the characterizations and performances to make sure it lands in all the right places and feels friendly rather than just familiar. is magnificent as Ada Harris, a London charwoman in the late fifties who holds tight to her belief in signs and omens, and after finally receiving confirmation about her husband’s fortunes in the Second World War, starts looking for a reason to change.

Ada’s days are spent in routine toil at the various homes that she cleans, occupied by people who treat her like she’s invisible, including a womanizing, top-hatted toff () who has a new “niece” on a daily basis, an ambitious starlet () who spends all her time in frivolous self-pity, and a titled aristocrat (, who is wonderful) whose idea of downsizing expenditures means changing none of her indulgent ways while being woefully behind on Ada’s wages. When our heroine spots the gorgeous Dior in the closet and learns that it cost the great lady five hundred pounds, she isn’t appalled either by the lavish expenditure or the sight of her hard-earned wages being poured into a bit of fabric: she’s transfixed, and the dress becomes the stuff of dreams. Saving up her money, losing and gaining some back through happenstance and turns of luck that convince her she’s on the right track, Mrs. Harris boards a plane for Paris with the express purpose of walking into Dior, purchasing a luxurious dress and popping back home to London the same day, thinking nothing of changing countries so quickly and having no idea of the actual process involved in taking on the responsibility of haute couture.

Arriving in the City Of Lights, she finds her way to the Dior Maison, accidentally interrupts an open house of the great designer’s new collection meant only for A-listers, and inspires the wrath of Dior’s second in command, a professional snob named Claudine Colbert, played with perfect touches of cruel humour by (and who better, in the absence of Catherine Deneuve smoking a cigarette directly in Ada’s face, to represent the gatekeepers of Paris high life than Madame Huppert’s eternally stony gaze). Thanks to the kindness of a friendly Marquis (), Ada gets to view Dior’s latest collection, but the cruelty of a stuck-up customer denies her the dress she loves most in the costume parade; Jenny Beavan, who the year before won her third Academy Award for costuming Cruella, has joined the tradition of great cinematic fashion shows that goes back to George Cukor’s The Women, doing a sterling job of recreating the sharp structures and clean lines of the period’s designs.

Claudine tries to bar Ada from purchasing anything, constantly wary of the financial value of Dior’s reputation for keeping the likes of a cleaning lady out of its business, but when the house accountant Andre Fauvel (Emily In Paris hunk du jour ) spots the wads of cash Ada has tucked in her purse, he insists she be given her next favourite item. Haute couture is French for foreclosure, apparently, as all Dior’s exclusive patrons are much like Ada’s high society boss back home, demanding top quality service while somehow always forgetting to pay the bill, and the opportunity to get their hands on cold hard cash is something that Fauvel refuses to pass up.

Settling for her second favourite dress and informed that she’ll need to stay in Paris for at least two weeks while it is fitted, Mrs. Harris sets up in Andre’s apartment and immediately gets to rearranging everyone’s life for the better, something that director Anthony Fabian allows to happen with magnificent, subtle ease: just by being her carefree and sincere self, holding on to her dream and refusing to justify it to anyone, Ada also makes a positive interference with the romance between Andre and a beautiful model named Natasha (a lovely ), plus helps lead a workers’ revolt and democratizes the world of haute couture for the masses. Not too shabby for a minibreak in France, but her experience is not without its hard knocks too, including a failed romance in the most romantic city in the world and, later, a mishap involving a fire grate that almost prevents a happy ending.

You realize at a pivotal point in the story that there are two kinds of films that involve someone falling asleep in a railway station: they either wake up and their bags are stolen (hence go on a picaresque journey to their true selves involving nothing but spontaneous luck) or they wake up and everything’s fine, in which case you can bet that no conflicts that arise will ever get that bad, everything will work out tickety-boo to the magnificent satisfaction of the audience. Choosing the latter, as this film does, means taking a risk, because if you’re going to tell a story that the audience is always far ahead of, you need to make sure they have a reason to stay.

In this case there are more than a few, beginning with the evocative recreation of the era, given magnificent depth by Beavan’s clothes and sets by production designer Luciana Arrighi (Oscar winner for Howards End, which Beavan also designed, among other great accomplishments). Most important, though, the film is overlaid with a great sense of charm, telling a story about shaking up rigid class systems through endearing characters, who all bring as much magic as they do gritty stakes to their interactions with the infectiously loveable protagonist; we’re as terrified by Claudine’s pronouncements as we are thoroughly enchanted by the kindness Ada is shown by Natasha and the atelier seamstresses.

Where things get flawed is in what feels like an attempt to whittle a bigger plot (based on the first of Paul Gallico’s novels about Mrs. ‘arris, previously adapted as a television movie with Angela Lansbury in 1992) into a smaller film narrative that can’t fully contain it, and there are a few corners of the story that deserve a little more attention, particularly the brief glimpse into Claudine’s home life and the machinations of Ada’s involvement in inspiring Andre’s business plans. The rewards, however, are many by the time you reach the film’s fairy tale ending, and somehow this delightfully unself-conscious woman, far away from our time and living an experience that doesn’t really exist anymore, becomes someone personal and cherishable for any of us who ever felt invisible and dreamed of finally being seen.

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