Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is the perfect rebuttal for a harrowing day. Do yourself a favor, put down the Times, turn away from the tube and lose yourself in this parable of unforeseen charm and potential. You will emerge richer, with a lifted spirit.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, Paul Gallico’s much-loved historic novel (Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, 1958) features Lesley Manville who plays Princess Margaret in The Crown. She is one of Britain’s most distinguished actors.
She plays Ada Harris, a charming and spirited housekeeper in 1957 London who falls in love with a wealthy customer’s Christian Dior haute couture dress. The dress is exquisite and casts a spell on Ada Harris, a woman of simple means.
It awakens a longing in her that she can’t silence. The dress becomes the object of her desire, and she will do anything to acquire it. Thus begins her plan to work harder, save more and travel to Paris to shop for her dream-dress at house of Dior.
Ada is a hardworking housemaid, dedicated to her work despite dismissive clients and low wages. She enjoys the simple pleasures of friendship and an occasional night at the pub with her friends.
Her dear husband Eddie went missing in the war 15 years earlier. Ada never lost hope for his return. News of Eddie’s death finally comes, and his are returned to her.
Her intention to purchase this Dior dress intensifies and it becomes a doorway-metaphor for her return to the life she has had on hold for so long. The film is a beautifully told story of a woman coming into self-focus.
Casting is everything. Leslie Manville is an artist of commanding esteem. She delivers a performance filled with the perfect mix of quiet confidence, self-determination and human kindness. The rest of the cast rises to meet her.
In addition to the Oscar-nominated Manville (for Mum), Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris reads like a who’s who of the British film industry, also featuring French phenom, Isabelle Huppert, another Oscar nominee (Elle).
She stars as Madame Colbert, a somewhat cold and disdainful operations manager at house of Dior who attempts to stand in the way of a determined Ada Harris. When Ada greets Madame Colbert as she enters the shop, “Excuse me dear, I’m after a frock, one of the 500-pound ones.” Colbert coldly responds, “You have the wrong place, let me show you out.”
Fear not, though, Madame Colbert is no match for Mrs. Harris. The film also features British actor Jason Issacs (Lucius Malfoy from Harry Potter) who plays Archie, one of Ada’s dearest friends. Her other best friend and coworker, Violet Butterfield, is heartfully played by Sierra Leonean-British actor Ellen Thomas. This ensemble is tight. Director Anthony Fabian (Skin, 2008) gets the absolute best out of his all-star cast.
Fabian cowrote the screenplay with Keith Thompson and Olivia Hetreed. Together they strike a believable balance between honoring Ada’s lifestyle as a housekeeper and giving credence to her emerging sense of entitlement to the dress of her dreams. Getting this Dior dress is her chrysalis, symbolizing her outer transformation and also her inner one. But neither director nor cast overplay this.
Mrs. Harris is a common woman seeking an extraordinary dream and emerging changed. Fabian, in an interview with Town and Country (July 15, 2022) describes this balance as “magic realism, having an equal dose of magic and reality.” What’s left is an uplifting fairy tale that challenges our perception of what’s possible.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is enjoying strong box office results in the US arthouse circuit. Paul Gallico (1897-1976) is the author of the original novel, first published as Flowers for Mrs. Harris in 1958. Gallico is not a household name, but his best-known books, namely The Poseidon Adventure and Pride of the Yankees, both became cinematic classics. They also tell stories of unexpected heroes.
This time-honored story has had several adaptations, the first being in 1958 for the television series Studio One starring British comedian Gracie Fields. Previous screen productions include a made-for-TV movie released in 1992 starring Angela Lansbury. There was also a musical-theater adaptation, Flowers for Mrs. Harris, which won three UK Theater Awards in 2016: Best Design, Best Performer in a musical (Clare Burt in the titular role) and Best Musical Production.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris runs 1 hour and 55 minutes and is currently playing at the historic Wilmette Theater, 1122 Central Ave, Wilmette. It is also available for paid streaming on Apple TV, Amazon and Vudu.