Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

We don’t just go see superhero movies in this household, no we do not.

Lately, looking for something that my wife was likely to enjoy, or at least be interested in, off we went to the cinemas for the whimsical Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, which I recently discovered is actually the fourth cinematic adaptation of the 1958 novel by Paul Gallico (although that was called Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris).

Spoilers!

The story is about the titular Mrs. Harris, a widow who works as a cleaning lady for various well-off clients, who becomes enamored with the haute-couture stylings of Christian Dior. For someone like Mrs. Harris, being able to travel to Paris and acquire such a special item is pipe dream that should be well out of reach. But thanks to a series of unlikely events, Mrs. Harris is able to raise the money she needs to take a couple of days off, travel over the channel and make her way to the showrooms of Christian Dior to find her dream dress. Mrs. Harris is well out of place in high society of Diors normal clientele, but because they have fallen on hard times and she is ready to pay cash for a dress, they begrudgingly agree to help her. The director of the Dior operation, Claudine Colbert, resents Mrs. Harris, but she befriends some of the other employees and ultimately even helps the company to revolutionize its entire approach to its business.

The movie is a bit of a fairy tale about an unlikely Cinderella-type who manages to go to a magic kingdom, and there is a lot of beautiful production design along the way. Both Mrs. Harris’ low class London life and the enchanted land of Paris are beautifully realizedd. And certainly, there is a lot of loveliness to gaze at in the Dior offices, with the fashion, the models, the culture, and so on.

And the film does make an effort to go to some interesting places. There is an interesting background detail, for example, about how the sanitation workers in Paris are striking, which means the beautiful city streets are lined with garbage. And where the fable-like story might have ended with Mrs. Harris’ return to London, it unexpectedly keeps going to show what happens when an act of misguided generosity results in the dream dress being tragically destroyed.

Mrs. Harris has been well reviewed, but beyond the strength of its immersive world-building, the movie is simply not very good. Just because a story is fanciful does not mean its fine for a story to be shallow. Conflicts arise with barely a provocation, and are resolved even more simplistically. There is a lot of talk about characters digging to the core of who they are and pursuing their dreams, but what dreams those might be are never articulated. In one case, “character development” is sidestepped for “random comments about existentialist philosophy”.

It’s the sort of movie that one imagines having a different appreciation for i one had read the book its based on. In fact, my daughter said as we debriefed the experience that it’s a movie that is very obviously based on a book: there is an effort to squeeze a lot into the movies runtime, but it often does so at the expense, of authenticity, depth, or potential interest.

And Mrs. Harris herself, though gamely performed by Lesley Manville, is so full of good-natured salt-of-the-earth pluck that I found her borderline insufferable. She’s the sort of person who who sees everyone around her with crystal clarity and doesn’t mind telling the like it is when it is for their own good. Traditions, establishment, cultural pride…none of it can stand in her way when she puts her mind to it and decides to set the world around her straight.

Of course, I’m probably overstating it. She does have her own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, but still she dominates most of the environments that she enters that it’s hard not to be a little frustrated with her.

I have sounded very negative but I didn’t hate this movie. There is a charm to the whole production, and there are a bunch of fine actors doing their best with the story. Most of them I am not familiar with, but Anna Chancellor (Miss Bingley from 1995’s Pride and Prejudice appears as one of Mrs. Harris more obnoxious clients, and Jason Isaacs (from Star Trek Discovery) is good as one of Mrs. Harris’ London friends (and potential love interest).

But I didn’t love it either. Really, I can’t even say I actually liked it. The dresses and models and ambiance are all lovely, but just not enough to make a good movie.

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