When is a dress not just a dress? When it’s a dream. When it’s a taste of a better life that is likely the only taste you’ll ever have.
Based on a novel that’s more than 60 years old, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris couldn’t feel more fresh in its knowing clashes between the hoi polloi and those who presume to be their betters. Lesley Manville (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Ordinary Love) is Ada Harris, a just-about-scraping-by war widow and housekeeper/cleaner in 1957 London, whose chance encounter with a bespoke Christian Dior gown in the bedroom of one of her rich-bitch employers sends her on an odyssey of longing that she is determined to fulfill, no matter how preposterous this is for her financially, and no matter what barriers her supposed superiors will throw up at her. (Isabelle Huppert [Greta, Louder Than Bombs] as the snooty Dior gatekeeper? Hoo boy.)
Manville is an absolute treasure, as always, perhaps never more so here as when she espies, in the boudoir of a wealthy aristo (Anna Chancellor: This Beautiful Fantastic, Testament of Youth), a beautiful Dior frock that takes her breath away — the look on Ada’s face is one of pure bliss, of a joy she had no idea existed. (It’s a phenomenal opposite to the jaded cynicism of Manville’s Phantom Thread character. Mrs Harris would make a lovely double feature with that film, to see Manville’s supreme command of both comedic pathos here and dramatic disillusionment there in the exact same milieu of 1950s haute couture.) Ada is transported, in a way both simple and profound, from her life of dirty work for little reward to a more carefree, more elegant realm. (Even poor people can have refined tastes!) Five hundred pounds, the dress cost, Lady Dant informs her — never mind that Lady Dant never seems to have the cash to pay Ada, and never mind that that’s a lot for a dress even today (if perhaps not a custom-made Dior). Ada’s shock turns to resolve: she will have a Dior dress, whatever it takes. Because she needs something to aspire to, and this is all that’s on offer for her, no matter how frivolous or out of reach it might seem.
Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is a fantasy, oh yes, but Anthony Fabian’s earnest direction and Manville’s grounded charm keep it from seeming ridiculous. You cheer for Ada because she’s so kind, even in the relentless pursuit of her dream; it’s no wonder both Jason Isaac’s (The Death of Stalin) working-class London bloke and Lambert Wilson’s (Suite Française) Parisian marquis both have a shine for her. We cheer for Ada, because she more than deserves this treat, even as we know how naive it is to imagine that worthiness reliably pays off in the real world. But why should pleasures only be simple? Don’t we all warrant spoiling? Mrs Harris’s dream is narrow and specific, but her kindness is expansive and infectious: she is so very easy to empathize with and cheer on even if you couldn’t possibly care less about a bespoke haute-couture gown.