Over the past few years, we’ve endured a pandemic, two hellish elections, a Capital attack, a drought, inflation, and a Supreme Court that seems determined to make The Handmaid’s Tale a reality. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris won’t make all of our problems go away, but it is a life-affirming romp that the world so desperately needs right now. It’s easy for the cynic in all of us to roll our eyes at the notion of a feel-good movie. In lesser hands, Mrs. Harris admittedly could’ve been too sweet for its own good. However, director Anthony Fabian strikes the ideal balance of whimsical, cheerful, and uplifting. Like its titular heroine, it’s hard for even the biggest curmudgeons to resist.
Lesley Manville has been popping up as a splendid supporting actress for years, but she’s underappreciated as a leading lady. Up until Mrs. Harris, she arguably shined the most in Mike Leigh’s Another Year. In that film, Manville played a divorcee who acts happy on the surface, but she’s lost and depressed underneath. In some respects, Ada Harris couldn’t be more different, spreading sincerity wherever she goes. Yet, there is a void in Mrs. Harris’ life that she’s been trying to fill. Recently learning that her husband died in World War II, she scrapes by as a cleaning woman. Although her employers complain about falling on hard times, they still have the funds for extravagant dresses and the nerve to reduce Harris’ hours. For once, Mrs. Harris decides to do something nice for herself.
Coming into a little money, Harris books a trip to Paris (hence the catchy title) to purchase a couture Dior dress. While there, she befriends a model named Natasha, played by Alba Baptista with the beauty and grace of a golden age star. Harris senses a spark between Natasha and the nerdy yet hunky accountant André (Lucas Bravo). As Harris plays matchmaker, there also might be room for romance in her life as she catches the eyes of a local aristocrat (Lambert Wilson) and her friend Archie (Jason Isaacs). Yet, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is more about self-love, which entails pampering yourself now and then.
Of course, pampering yourself isn’t always without obstacles. On her mission to acquire her dream dress, Mrs. Harris confronts several local snobs, including sharp-tongued saleswoman Claudine (Isabelle Huppert). At times, the antagonistic characters can be a bit too on the nose, most notably one elitist and her daughter draped in all black. Unlike Brian and Charles, though, Mrs. Harris doesn’t dwell too much on one-dimensional villains. The film primarily consists of Harris helping others while discovering her confidence, which can be quite fascinating with the right casting, script, and direction. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris has all three.
Although the plot revolves around buying a dress, Mrs. Harris isn’t a materialistic movie. It’s about the hard work that goes into treating oneself. The film even has a good message about how being too selfless can backfire. If you’re genuinely good to others, though, the universe may reward your sincerity in the end. It’s a fresh spin on the classic Cinderella story that oddly feels more magical than some modern Cinderella adaptations. By the end, I was surprised to find just how invested I was in Mrs. Harris getting her dress. Part of that might have to do with Jenny Beavan’s Oscar-caliber costume design. On the whole, though, it’s Manville who holds our investment every step of the way.