Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris was adapted from “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris”, the 1958 novel written by Paul Gallico. Put simply, it’s the story of an old English widow who goes to Paris so she can buy a Dior dress. Somehow, a novel with this premise begat three sequels, in addition to three made-for-TV adaptations and even the “Flowers for Mrs. Harris” stage musical adaptation that premiered in 2016.
Such a frilly little nothing of a premise lending itself to over 60 years’ worth of adaptations and sequels across multiple media. And now a critically lauded feature film. How could this be possible? Well, let’s take it from the top.
We open in London, circa the late 1950s. Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) is a kindly old British woman who works as a housemaid while also moonlighting as a seamstress. And shortly after the plot begins, Ada gets the belated news that her long-lost husband has finally been confirmed as KIA all the way back in World War II. I’m not entirely sure why it took 13 freaking years, but we’ll roll with it.
Just as Ada has lost all direction and purpose in life, she catches sight of a gorgeous Dior dress that a client of hers has recently taken purchase of. Long story short, Ada scrimps and saves and gets enough lucky windfalls that she can afford a vacation to Paris to buy her own couture Dior dress.
Then she actually gets to Paris and finds that it’s overflowing with trash because of a garbage workers’ strike. Furthermore, Dior is a highly exclusive brand full of snooty executives and snobby asshole clients who will only grudgingly give a poor elderly British housekeeper the time of day when she starts throwing cash around. Even then, the process of getting a couture dress specially made for her will take at least a week, and everyone up top — most especially the company director, Claudine Colbert, here played by Isabelle Huppert — does everything possible at every step of the way to send Ada back to the UK empty-handed.
I know this may not sound like much — and it really isn’t — but there’s A LOT happening under the surface here.
The fastest and most direct way to describe what’s going on is a comparison with the two Paddington films. All three movies are quintessentially British, with a heavy focus on British humor and mannerisms. Yet the movies are all rooted firmly in a “fish out of water” milieu, in which our protagonist lands in some foreign culture and improves everything around her with the simple question of why things have to be the way they are and everyone has to be so miserable.
More importantly, all three movies espouse a highly basic and pure morality in a dreary and complicated world. Though our protagonists owe a great deal of their successes to improbable luck and lazy storytelling, and though both Paddington and Ada are prone to making naive mistakes, they always succeed in the long run simply through being good people. As with Paddington, Ada is kind and polite, honest and patient, eager to make herself useful, and easy to get along with. Both characters are inherently nice people, but they’re not wimps and they only have so much patience for being taken advantage of. Indeed, watching Ada Harris find her backbone makes for a delightful arc.
What’s more, the film has a great deal to say about hopes and dreams. Sure, it may sound silly that Ada Harris’ big dream is to go to Paris and drop a fortune on a beautiful dress she may never wear. But the fact remains that it’s her dream and she’s well within her right to chase after it. And even if the dress simply takes up space in her wardrobe, bringing her some measure of comfort and her life a little more beautiful, who could begrudge her that?
Then again, the Dior brand (in the setting of this movie, at least, I can’t speak to how it is in real life) is extremely elitist, catering exclusively to the rich and powerful while refusing to serve such hoi polloi as Mrs. Harris. To which the film exclaims with full-throated fervor that nobody is nobody. Everyone deserves a chance at happiness, everyone deserves to be loved, and everyone has a vital place in this world. Just look at Ada Harris, for example — one week without their precious housekeeper and her clients practically fall apart!
Oh, and there’s also the teensy little fact that Dior desperately needs Ada’s cash because their highly exclusive business model means fewer customers and less revenue. Get your head out of your ass, Director Colbert, time to adapt or die!
Speaking of which, a great deal of screentime is given to the reality behind the dream. Paris looks like the most romantic city in the world from a distance, until Mrs. Harris gets there and it’s covered in trash. She only ever saw the glitter and glamor of the Dior dress, and then she sees the army of employees it takes just to keep the company running long enough to make and sell a single garment. Another great case in point is Natasha (Alba Baptista), who worked her way up to be the star model of Dior, and now she’s working herself to exhaustion and unhappiness with so much more shit than she ever bargained for.
At every turn, Mrs. Harris is faced with the question of who she is and what she wants. A daunting question for anyone. Then again, there’s something reassuring and even a little empowering in the fact that she’s still asking those questions. Even at this late stage in her life, she’s still learning and growing and figuring herself out.
Great praise is due to Lesley Manville, who perfectly and totally sells the film’s unapologetically pure morality and gives us a fine upstanding protagonist worth following. I was also rather fond of Jason Isaacs and Lambert Wilson here as two prospective love interests for Ada — I’ve seen these two play so many villains, it was a refreshing change of pace to see them play gentlemen with legitimate charm and good nature. Kudos are also due to Lucas Bravo and Alba Baptiste, both of whom admirably play supporting roles with their own cute little romance subplot.
Surprisingly, Isabelle Huppert is the weak link of the cast. Not that she’s necessarily bad, but she didn’t quite sell the character for me. Director Colbert turned out to be a surprisingly nuanced character who demanded a precise balance, and I get the sense that Huppert couldn’t figure out exactly how broad to play the part.
The other big problem is the pacing. Even with a two-hour runtime, the movie felt like it dragged on and on. It’s an unfortunate result of a script with very little action and deliberately low stakes, coupled with so many layers of deeply personal themes to explore, plus a main character so far out of her comfort zone that she needs everything explained to her in two different languages! It adds up to a script that’s extremely heavy on dialogue, which in turn slows down the proceedings. And the filmmakers are sadly incapable of adding any visual flair more innovative or captivating than a freaking dolly zoom. No, scratch that, I must have counted at least two or three dolly zooms.
With all of that said, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is so unabashedly wholesome that it’s impossible to hate. This was built from the ground up as a feel-good movie, one in which the main character succeeds in her goals and is saved from her mistakes simply because she tries so hard to do the right thing. It’s a movie about good people getting the good things they deserve, and that’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy we should all aspire to.
This is hardcore cinematic comfort food. This is a movie that doesn’t shy away from the ignorance and sadness and pain of the real world, but nonetheless insists that anyone can overcome them in spite of all obstacles. This one goes out to anyone living through a hard time or going through some existential crisis. Check it out and see if it brightens your day.