by Maribeth Thueson
In a summer of the usual bombastic movies about superheroes and stuff blowing up, it’s a real pleasure to sit in a theater and see a lovely film like Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. Based on a 1958 novel by Paul Gallico, Mrs. Harris is about an English cleaning lady who sees a Dior dress in the house of one of her clients. The dress is everything that is loveliness and springtime, and Mrs. Harris is enchanted, so much so that she determines to go to Paris and buy a Dior dress for herself. Not even the extremely high prices daunts her. “Five hundred quid for a frock?!” she exclaims. So she scrimps and saves, and just when it appears that she’ll never have enough money, a series of small miracles occurs which make the trip possible.
That’s one reason why Mrs. Harris is such a breath of fresh air. There’s a waft of magical realism through it, the kind of thing we don’t get much in movies any more, that guarantees that good things will come to those who deserve it, and that even the villains aren’t all that bad.
Lesley Manville is wonderful as Mrs. Harris, who is warm, generous, and charming, without being saccharine. She is kind to everybody, so everybody is kind to her, from her best pal Vi (Ellen Thomas), to the local bookie (Jason Isaacs), to the clients whose houses she cleans, to the winos in the Paris train station, to the denizens of the House of Dior.
An act of kindness toward a Dior model (Alba Baptista), in fact, is what gets Mrs. Harris inside the Dior atelier. It happens to be the day the designer is showing his new collection, and the elite customers are starting to arrive for the fashion show. The martinet who runs the place, Madame Colbert (Isabelle Huppert), is appalled that such a low-class person is on the premises and tries to have her thrown out, but when Mrs. Harris puts her cash on the table, the accountant (André Fauvel) insists that she stay. It seems the Dior haute couture business is in trouble, partly because of clients who don’t pay, and cash money can’t be ignored. A handsome marquis (Lambert Wilson) waiting in line asks Mrs. Harris to join him as his guest at the fashion show, and Colbert is overruled.
Mrs. Harris does indeed choose a dress (most of the dresses are actual Dior designs), and while she’s waiting for it to be fitted, there’s romance, champagne, friendship, and magic. This is the Paris you’ve always dreamed about, despite the garbage on the streets, where wonderful things happen and your soul expands. Even Mrs. Harris is changed, and as she changes, she also changes those around her, fixing everybody’s little problems.
Meanwhile, the movie has some things to say about the value of beauty and kindness, the invisibility of middle-aged women, the importance of standing up for yourself, and the truth that even martinets have feelings.
What keeps this from being a complete confection is that Mrs. Harris doesn’t always have an easy time of it. Her Paris sojourn is temporary, after all, and she has a bitter disappointment to deal with. Not even Mrs. Harris can always be full of light and happiness. But would it surprise you to know that things come out right in the end? Of course not, because kindness and magic always make for a happy ending.