The last time we saw Lesley Manville in a fashion movie, she was playing the highly strung sister and business partner of Daniel Day-Lewis’s fastidious British couturier in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. Now she returns in a very different fashion film set in very much the same era: the musty old 1950s, playing a chirpy London cleaning lady called Mrs Harris whose backdated war-widow pension kicks in at the same time as a win on the football pools (younger viewers may need to Google that), and she heads off to Paris with a big dream: to buy a beautiful Christian Dior gown.
Wide-eyed Mrs Harris finds herself initially looked down on with haughty Gallic astonishment by the fashion house’s formidable director of operations Mme Colbert (Isabelle Huppert), who has no great wish to be addressed as “ducks”. But Mrs Harris’s innate charm and innocence wins everyone over. It is adapted from the 1958 novel by Paul Gallico in which she was “Mrs ’Arris” in its original American title: a condescension that this film corrects.
There’s such a lovely sweet-natured sense of fun in this Cinderella tale, a multicoloured confection like something that Fortnum & Mason might put in the shop window. Manville carries it off with absolute conviction: she plays Mrs Harris’s naivety with just the right lightness, her determination with the right edge of steel, and her inner grief at the long-denied loss of her husband with the right seriousness and sadness.
And there’s a terrific supporting cast giving it some zing both sides of the Channel. Anna Chancellor is hilariously awful as the mean Lady Dant, who has enough money to buy a staggering Dior dress (it is the sight of this garment that triggers Mrs Harris’s frock-yearning) but is too stingy to pay her cleaning lady what she owes. Ellen Thomas gives a lovely performance as Mrs Harris’s best mate Violet and Jason Isaacs comes close to pinching the whole thing as the rackety, cheery Archie, who is involved in greyhound racing. Once Mrs Harris makes it to Paris, she encounters the scary Mme Colbert (great tongue-in-cheek stuff from Huppert) but also the handsome, soigné Marquis de Chassange, played by Lambert Wilson, who appears to take a gallant shine to Mrs Harris, causing her to be all aflutter.
Preposterous though it may be, this is a terrific family movie in a style audiences may not have seen since Mary Poppins. I hope it’s a box-office smash up to Christmas and beyond.
• Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is released on 30 September in UK cinemas and 27 October in Australia.