It might be a sure bet the summer movie marketplace is healing when older audiences are flocking back, anticipating a film that’s well up their street. The sort of film flying under the radar, just below the tentpole calendar, touching on either decadent whimsy or character-intensified drama. Or in the case of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a Mean Girls-like spin on class and elitism. The territory is far from original, British cinema has played the game numerous times like it were a battleground. The working-class butting heads with the upscale in a boundless struggle, pausing to capture certain moments of triumph, defeat, or nonconformity. The latter earns the most attention, readjusting optics once favoring staying in one’s lane. Here, director Anthony Fabian (Good Hope) seeks to celebrate those in the wings, desiring happiness by way of the unconventional.
It’s mid-50s London, an opulent time for progress in a city continuing to find its post-war identity. The same could be said for Ada Harris (Lesley Manville), a housekeeper hanging on to the dwindling hope of her war-bound husband Ed being found safe. Alas, the complete opposite is revealed, Mr. Harris was killed in action, and they could only positively ID years after the fact. In the wake of tragedy, Ada faces a genuine crisis, uncertain how to move on. Her bestie Vi (Ellen Thomas) can only console her so much, a giant leap must occur. And the widowed office cleaner finds that in one of her wealthier client’s dressers. An elaborate Dion dress that catches her eye so much, that she wants to own one, likely to wear it for a special occasion. Though fast luck, she saves up enough to at least make the summery flight to Paris.
Even with being adapted from a famed fifties novel by Paul Gallico and following in the footsteps of prior iterations headlined by Angela Lansbury and Gracie Fields, this getaway with destiny couldn’t be further from a fairy tale. Once landed down in the famed city of love, the rules change. Once a steadfast hero back home, she’s immediately dismissed by Dior’s crafty business head Claudine (Isabelle Huppert). Only for her intent to be saved by lovelorn accountant Andre (Lucas Bravo), extending his hospitality to the working-class maven who agrees to stay in the city for a week of strenuous cutting and fitting. And with that, an all-out pleasing affair of classist tension.
Fabian, aided by co-writers Carroll Cartwright (What Maisie Knew), Keith Thompson (The Sapphires), and Olivia Hetreed (Girl with a Pearl Earring), does not shirk from the prospect of making the familiar routine of social standing both hilarious and poignant. Manville proves her strengths in both, melding the two into one captivating fabric. One where no thematic beat is played for cheap or undersold to the viewer. There really is an uphill struggle to Harris’s goal, and the weight of her imaginative idea echoes by way of optimism and self-discovery. A piece of her mind she could never encounter back home, workplaces shuffling her presence to mere invisibility. Save for fleeting occasions where clients come to Ada as a sounding board. The point does turn belabored at times, overemphasizing the heroine’s motivation. Even that does mellow partway.
Upon arrival in Paris, we see avenues of her character long suppressed by cultural ordinances. Harris wastes no time blossoming to the fresh locale, though it still bears its challenges. The variety is only resolvable by simple intuition. Pitted against Huppert, as an antagonist operating under her own code of obedience to Dior’s strict business strategy, she responds with stark naivety. And facing her own dark cloud, a small piece of unfinished business Ed had left behind, she pivots that energy toward a series of positive events. Be it mediating with upper management, making friends with the sewing staff, or matchmaking. Nudging the timid Andre into dating territory with model Natasha (Alba Baptista) offers myriad reward for the plot. As does a small infatuation for Ada with the Marquis de Chassagne (a jovial Lambert Wilson).
When that thematic template succeeds to fit the rigors of his cast, Fabian’s focus then takes a wild swing to manifest the visual mystique of mid-century France. With a flexible budget to shoot around Paris and London, his eye for detail, shared with DP Felix Wiedemann (Sulphur and White) and production designer Luciana Arrighi (Come Away) runs without apprehension. It may not be a completely accurate representation of that era, aside from the overall spirit and unconventionality. That minimal disjoint serves Fabian all too well. Likewise for costuming genius Jenny Beavan (Cruella) whose artistic prowess often lent to gasps of distraction. What she could conjure up with her level of dexterity and care made for most welcome eye candy. The type that solidifies a career if prior works hadn’t already.
And with Manville, whose body of work has often compelled her to be tough, coy, and a smidge nefarious (ex: Let Him Go), whimsical dramedy is well up her street. Not to mention, a breezy rivalry with Huppert at her most off-the-cuff. While the skeleton of Fabian’s adaptation borders on sappy and slightly derivative with key points, its essence remains firm. Small wobbles notwithstanding, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is just the film to cleanse the palette amid all the top-shelf summer fare. A deep cleansing breath in a moment of cinematic anxiety. A chance at clarity when facing a crisis of the heart or soul, or both. Whether one applies to its target audience or not – and I’m clearly not – the riches are opulent with this affirming flight. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris opens in theaters July 15; rated PG for suggestive material, language and smoking; 115 minutes.