If you can watch this movie and not be at least a little ensorcelled by it, I’ll wager you’re too preoccupied with stealing Christmas presents from Whoville. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris speaks to the part of us that still holds hope for fairy tales and miracles–that even the Grinchiest among us can manage a beating heart. I’ll admit to being a tough audience when it comes to movies, especially when they’re slathered in sentimentality, but this one even had me grinning like an idiot.
In postwar England, Mrs. Harris (Lesley Manville) lives an austere existence cleaning houses around Battersea. She keeps a circle of quirky friends, with an emphasis on bestie Vi (Ellen Thomas) and genteel bookie Archie (Jason Isaacs). Mrs. Harris is mostly contented, with one key exception: She clutches a 12-year-old letter from the War Office, which she fears will detail the fate of her beloved hubby. After a some prodding from Vi, Mrs. Harris finally tears open the post. The results are devastating, if predictable. Mr. Harris was killed in action, making Mrs. Harris an official war widow.
This news has the unexpected effect of liberating Mrs. Harris from her long-simmering grief. The sight of a Christian Dior dress rekindles her passion and desire to love again. At this point, Dior fashion is still haute couture, meaning Mrs. Harris will have to finagle hundreds of pounds, make the titular journey to Paris, and have the dress made for her.
When Mrs. Harris makes her inevitable invasion of Paris, her bulletproof optimism runs smack into the starchy pretentiousness of the fashion world. This takes the human form of Claudine (Isabelle Huppert), the haughty, high-strung manager of Dior’s studio. She regards Mrs. Harris’s presence as an affront to Dior’s pristine, patrician aesthetic, and treats her accordingly.
Meanwhile, most of the staff are immediately smitten with this plucky widow’s effortless charm. Mr. Fauvel (Lucas Bravo), the company’s hunky accountant, offers Mrs. Harris a place to stay while her dress is made. At the same time, house model Natasha (Alba Baptista) leans on Mrs. Harris like a surrogate mother. Most critically, the Marquis de Chassange (Lambert Wilson), a wealthy patron, takes a shine to Dior’s most unlikely client. Handsome and urbane, the Marquis seems too good to be true, but Mrs. Harris is quickly won over by his genuine affability.
Mrs. Harris is a rich, delectable hunk of chocolate, and you’re meant to savor every sugary bite. Director Anthony Fabian loads his film with opulent shots of Parisian topography, including touristy highlights like the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides. This movie will make you want to go to Paris, pour a generous glass of Burgundy, and talk about the nature of existence on the banks of the Seine. (Never mind all the piled garbage from a workers’ strike.) The film’s striking beauty is aided by Felix Weidermann’s soft, dewy cinematography, which only adds to the atmosphere of romance.
Despite its postcard perfection, Mrs. Harris’s best asset is Manville’s lead performance. Her instant, irresistible likability powers the entire film, and helps it past occasional lapses in credibility. (No one’s going to watch this movie for its authenticity, but there are moments where suspension of disbelief must be stretched to full capacity.)
All the supporting players turn in fine work, as well. Wilson gives his kindly aristocrat a touch of Omar Sharif’s panache. Isaacs goes against the Malfoy grain as Mrs. Harris’s twinkly blue-collar buddy. Finally, Huppert brings a shade of warmth to her ice queen, a necessity for a movie that believes no villain can be all bad.
I had no idea what to expect from this movie. It was based on a book I’ve never heard of (Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, by Paul Gallico), and adapted into a television movie I’ve never seen (starring Angela Lansbury, of all people). For once, my ignorance actually paid off. The infectious innocence and good-hearted humor of Mrs. Harris felt that much more refreshing. My goofy smile was that much bigger. If you’re looking for an emotional palate cleanser, I’ve found the perfect movie for you.
115 min. PG. On demand.