Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) has never asked for anything. A hardworking cleaning woman in 1950s London, she spends her days cleaning up other peoples’ messes with an indestructible smile on her face, reliably spreading positivity everywhere she goes. But when she discovers the magic of Dior in the form of an employers’ dress, she realizes that it’s finally time for her to treat herself. Ada becomes dead-set on acquiring the hefty funds required to visit Dior’s luxurious Paris headquarters, using her British cunning and persevering through a number of faux pas and social blunders along the way. Mrs. Harris does indeed end up making it to Paris (thanks for the spoiler, movie title) and while there, she unsurprisingly butts up against an abundance of trials and tribulations as she pursues the dress of her dreams.
Directed by Anthony Fabian and written by Fabian, Carroll Cartwright, Leigh Thompson and Olivia Hetreed, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris masterfully achieves every note essential in a captivating underdog story. A lot of the film’s tonal success has to do with Manville, who was cleverly cast as the inverse of her character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, where she played the stony, business-savvy sister of a distinguished 1950s fashion designer. In Harris, Manville plays the optimistic, inexperienced Ada with a perfect mix of coarse humor and clumsy mannerisms, alongside subtle yet powerful glints of empathy and sophistication. This level of nuance quickly prevents the character from being subjected to “lower-class woman in over her head” cliches, which could have pushed Harris into the unfavorable realm of the unrelatable broad comedy. But Ada is relatable. She is kind; she sees the good in people and the beauty in beautiful things. We can’t help but root for her from the outset.
Manville’s compassionate performance is bolstered by Fabian’s detail-oriented and textured storytelling. When Ada finally makes it to Paris, we see the city as she does: In sweeping widescreen, blushing with pastel colors, with rain-covered streets sparkling like dazzling disco balls. This tone of wonderment seeps into the House of Dior, too, especially permeating Harris’s greatest scene, the Dior fashion show.
Accompanied by Rael Jones’ dreamy, romantic piano score, the pageant forces even the fashion cynic to watch with bated breath. Each dress is more spectacular than the last, and Fabian, with the help of cinematographer Felix Wiedermann, makes sure to exhibit every ravishing detail. Silk flutters when its model moves. Satin breathes with a life of its own in close-ups. And when Ada’s favorite dress appears, Fabian switches to a birds-eye angle and showcases it in a kaleidoscopic view, as if we have transitioned into some heavenly daydream.
And a heavenly daydream is precisely what Ada is experiencing, emphasized by a dolly-zoom employed right when she locks her eyes onto the dress for the first time. Soon after, the fashion show ends, and I, in the theater, finally exhaled for the first time since the scene began.
Harris isn’t just inspiring and exquisite to look at—it’s also really funny. On top of Ada bringing her lower-class London humor to Paris with a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, Isabelle Huppert showcases her exceptional comedic chops as the impossibly posh Dior manager, Claudine Colbert. For much of the film, she is Ada’s main adversary, often meeting her acceptance into Dior with a comical look of wide-eyed panic, and playing up a sense of withering, French flippancy.
Harris remains a careful balancing act between humor and earnestness throughout its runtime, and, for the most part, it succeeds. Fabian finds himself in an epic ping-pong match that bounces from one to the other—though sometimes one side lingers for a little too long. The idea of Ada being an “invisible” cleaning woman, for example, is hammered in a little too hard at times. The film also has a difficult time finding its footing in the beginning, when a bunch of seemingly unrelated incidents push our protagonist to Paris. Still, it is uplifting and elegantly made, and a movie that you don’t have to love fashion to enjoy—just as Ada reminds us that we don’t have to be part of the upper-class to wear haute couture.
Director: Anthony Fabian
Writers: Anthony Fabian, Carroll Cartwright, Keith Thompson, Olivia Hetreed
Stars: Lesley Manville, Isabelle Huppert, Jason Isaacs, Alba Baptista, Lucas Bravo, Elen Thomas, Lambert Wilson
Release Date: July 15, 2022
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.