Jason Isaacs is delightful anyway, but doing a thick Irish accent in comedy movie Mrs Harris Goes To Paris? Like butter wouldn’t melt. He’s just one charm the film exudes, a rambunctious co-star to Leslye Manville’s Londoner cleaning lady who has big dreams of going to Paris. Her trip is fanciful, romantic, and such is the allure.
Grieving the loss of her husband from WWII, Mrs Harris finds comfort in routine until happenstance grants her some extra money. She’d always wanted a beautiful dress, the kind handcrafted by Dior in France, and so she goes about gathering every penny she has for an excursion.
Getting the money forms one half of the drama movie, and fitting in with French bourgeoisie is the other. Doubts are cast on all sides, and wielding little more than a good attitude and some self-belief, Mrs Harris, like the film itself, rises above expectation.
Based on the novel Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico, this is the fourth screen adaptation, the most notable and recent before now being a TV movie in 1992 featuring Angela Lansbury. It’d be unfair to compare that to this, a studio picture on wide release, but Manville’s depiction has such a lived-in appeal, it’s the definitive turn.
A noted character actor, nominated for multiple BAFTAs in drama series Mum before giving Daniel-Day Lewis what for in 2019’s Phantom Thread, Manville’s been overdue a chance to lead. She steps into the shoes of an everywoman in 1950s London who desires to have a moment for herself with a certain sense of authority on feeling like part of the furniture and playing second fiddle.
Indeed, the reaction to her desire to obtain a garment straight from the hands of Christian Dior gets more than justifies the attempt. Practically everyone writes it off as a dream, even Isaacs’s smooth-talking bookie Archie and best pal Violet (Ellen Thomas). But Mrs Harris has a guardian angel, and finds herself walking into Paris city centre before too long.
That resourcefulness is pushed to its limits when broaching the gates of Dior, and its snobby customer base. They’ve never met someone like Mrs Harris, though, who has no shame in loudly explaining why her money is as good as anyone else’s. Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is defiant in its romance, knowledgeable that big theatrical releases centred on single, older, working-class women are few and a far between.
Even the frustration of Dior trying to turn down her money can’t disrupt the dreamy wistfulness of it all. Going to Paris, seeing the sights, falling in love, helping others do the same, it’s such a flight of fancy. But that’s the magic of movies: anything we can imagine can become real. Mrs Harris is carried along by great coincidence, and even luck being on your side can feel like pure escapism.
There are very few establishing shots; director Anthony Fabian keeps us linked to Mrs Harris’s own perspective on the city and its people. As one man tells her, “Paris belongs to the walkers”, and the French capital still manages to be gorgeous without the Eiffel Tower regularly in view.
Even as the trip proves bittersweet in what wishes it fulfils and what it doesn’t, Mrs Harris leaves as much an impression there as is left on her as the excursion changes the entire fashion industry. A remarkable journey, taken by someone who’s long deserved to be considered remarkable.
Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is in theatres on September 30.
Leslye Manville finally gets a chance in a delightful jaunt