Mrs Harris Goes to Paris review – Lesley Manville charms in light soufflé

The Oscar nominee is on excellent form in a sweet-natured Cinderella tale about a cleaner on a mission to buy a Dior dress

It’s been a reassuringly robust summer at the box office, records breaking here, there and everywhere (sometimes all at once), but sighs of relief from the industry haven’t been able to mask personal sighs of exhaustion, a not necessarily bad season but a largely unremarkable one. There’s been a sense of fun missing, something that usually defines the films released during this period but not something that a maverick, a T rex, a Thor or an Elvis could truly deliver. It’s therefore rather delicious that it would arrive courtesy of Lesley Manville, floating into cinemas with Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, a charming flight of fancy that rewards the long-time character actor with a much-deserved chance to finally play the lead, a Cinderella story both on and off screen.

Anyone familiar with the films of Mike Leigh or prestige British TV will have already been aware, and probably in awe, of Manville long before 2017 but it was her Oscar-nominated turn in Phantom Thread that edged her up a level for most, previously unopened doors now suddenly ajar. She nabbed a juicy villain role in Let Him Go, tormenting, and ultimately stealing the film away from, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, joined the ensemble cast of BBC’s smash hit thriller series Sherwood, scored a key spot in Starz’s Dangerous Liaisons prequel and was cast as Princess Margaret in the next two seasons of The Crown (something that’s likely to lead to a bounty of awards). It’s all setting Manville up for the status she’s deserved for a great many years, as one of the UK’s finest, deserving of space alongside Helen Mirren and Judi Dench, the term “national treasure” cringingly yet accurately used.

While Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is far lighter fare and at times so light that it threatens to drift away, Manville is determined to keep it grounded, a deft balance of dramatic heft and comic levity that not many other actors could employ quite so seamlessly. Her Mrs Harris is a warm, hard-working cleaning lady in 1950s London, doggedly going from house to house, quietly tidying up after lives far more exciting and glamorous than hers. But when she sees a Dior dress in one of her regular client’s bedrooms, she falls in love and sets her mind on travelling to Paris to get one herself.

What’s initially refreshing, and that much more involving, is that despite the somewhat fantastical nature of her quest, the script, based on Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel Flowers for Mrs Harris, refuses to make things easy for her. There’s slow progress and a number of setbacks that don’t exactly place the film in the realm of the real (it’s pure escapism throughout) but makes her arrival in France feel earned and at least vaguely tethered to some sense of logic. As Mrs Harris finds her way into the world of fashion, she befriends a handsome pair of twentysomethings who she plays cupid for (Emily in Paris’s Lucas Bravo and Portuguese actor Alba Baptista) and a potential love interest (Lambert Wilson). But not everyone is quite as charmed and she gets an antagonist in the shape of, but who else, Isabelle Huppert as the snippy director of Dior.

It’s strange, given how parody-level perfect Huppert should be for this role, just how misjudged and messy her performance is. She’s far, far too broad and over-emphatic, as if she’s starring in a laboured farce, ensuring her every move is big enough for those in the cheap seats to see and her wild, way-off instincts clash when up against Manville, who is note-perfect throughout. Even though the simplicity of the text essentially demands us to side with and root for Mrs Harris at all times, Manville makes what could have been an easy working class archetype feel like a genuine person, securing our upmost investment as she edges closer to securing her dream dress. There’s something brilliantly simple about what Mrs Harris wants and how she intends to get it, without the need to turn her or the film into something more unnecessarily complex and overstuffed. She doesn’t want to social climb or to fall in love, she just wants that dress. Credit must then be directed at Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan, whose Oscar-worthy outfits are so ravishing one can instantly see why Mrs Harris would feel so transported by a mere glance. Beavan worked with the Dior archival team in Paris to recreate dresses from the time and the depth of her work makes the world of the film that much more authentic and aesthetically immersive.

Director Anthony Fabian maximises a relatively meagre $13m budget, whisking us back to a modestly yet effectively realised recreation of 50s London and Paris, giving his film a cosy glow but with a bittersweet edge that prevents it all from fading into a puff of sugar. It’s an edge that cuts deepest in the last act which places Mrs Harris, and us, back in the real world, returning from a vacation to realise that the cruelty of life remains. Mrs Harris and her journey to Paris might not be one that stays with you for very long – one’s memory of the film might be as fleeting as her trip – but it’s so far the best escape many of us will have had this summer.

  • Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is out in the US on 15 July, in the UK on 30 September, and in Australia on 20 October


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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