Imagine lovingly gazing into a French patisserie’s window display of colorful confections: chocolatey éclairs, fluffy macarons, shiny religieuses … Cinematically speaking, Anthony Fabian’s genial and disarming “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is the closest you can get to that mouthwatering sweet-tooth sensation without the calories. Adapted from Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel (charmingly called “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris”) by a crowded group of screenwriters that includes Carroll Cartwright, Keith Thompson, and Olivia Hetreed in addition to Fabian, this mid-century-set treat is as pretty and heartwarming as you can imagine in following a modest housekeeper’s dreamy quest to head to Paris and purchase her very own Christian Dior gown.
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It helps that the titular heroine Ada—a London-based war widow, making ends meet as a humble housekeeper—is played by the ever alluring Lesley Manville, a performer of both effortless grace and unyielding vigor. It’s impossible not to recall her character from “Phantom Thread” here, given both films are circa-’50s, couture-focused outings. But the affable Mrs. Harris is worlds removed from the steely House of Woodcock head Cyril of click-clacking heels and a no-nonsense demeanor. On the contrary, the tireless do-gooder Ada is as warmhearted as a human being can be. And Manville secures the audience’s goodwill so quickly that you don’t, even for a second, question why a hardworking cleaning lady from limited means would blow off all her life’s savings on a superfluous indulgence like a designer gown. After all, this is a lighthearted fairy tale and who is to say that Mrs. Harris’ dream—one she acquires as soon as she lays her eyes on a Dior dress owned by one of her wealthy clients for the first time—isn’t as valid as anyone’s romantic pursuits?
Indeed, fashion equals love in “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” which understands on a deep level why a handsome dress or a head-to-toe put-together outfit can feel like an armor of invincibility. (On that note, even with her small budget, Ada is never less than polished, or even a little fancy, with her pretty prints and hopeful florals that dominate her daywear.) So you root for Mrs. Harris’ goal unequivocally, especially once she saves up enough cash with a little help from her friends and strangers that she consistently wins over. And after a string of chance gambles and strange pursuits like dog races, Ava finds herself at the storied House of Dior, legendarily on Avenue Montaigne.
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The script doesn’t dwell on logistical details and plausibility so much. In that regard, don’t ask how a Pollyanna-esque civilian who doesn’t really look like the haughty Dior type casually strolls into the designer house and before you know it, mingles with the label’s head Claudine Colbert (Isabelle Huppert, giving Cyril Woodcock a run for her money), the brand’s handsome accountant André (Lucas Bravo), and top model Natasha (Alba Baptista). Still, that is exactly what happens once the handsome suitor Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson) openly supports Mrs. Harris and invites her to join him on the label’s upcoming fashion show.
That centerpiece display—flaunting various New Look-era frocks, including an iteration of the iconic Bar Suit—is really what you come to “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” for, with Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan marvelously in charge. And how could Ada not fall in love with every single piece of clothing that she sees, especially an emerald-green gown called Venus and her favorite: the shimmery, crimson-red tea-length dress, Temptation? But once the initially villainous (but increasingly sympathetic) Claudine announces that Temptation is exclusively promised to a repeat Dior client, Ada settles with Venus, the expedited making of which would take the house’s miracle cutters a couple of speedy weeks.
Moving in with the kindly André during this time and even putting her skills as a matchmaker to work—yes, André and the brainy Natasha are would-be love interests—Ada settles into a new routine in Paris, once again earning the love and trust of everyone she crosses paths with. In any other setting, the film’s farfetched ending—so outlandishly whimsical and neatly wrapped that even the likes of Cinderella would envy it—would garner nothing but eye rolls. But in the fable-esque world that Fabian builds, it feels just right, even rightfully deserved. The world isn’t the happiest place to be these days, so why not cheer a l