Whether it’s the Chanel boots that make your judgmental coworkers notice you, a pair of jeans that magically fit all of your friends, or a missing white collarless shirt from Fred Segal, fashion in film has the power to inspire and even transform a character’s confidence. In the delightful modern fairytale, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) finds herself drawn to one specific item of clothing, a couture Dior gown that she knows must have.
As the title clearly states, Ada’s journey to Paris is the key to the film; but what inspires her to leave her home in London for Paris in the first place? Before she sets out on her adventure, Ada is the type of woman who seems like her spontaneous days are behind her. She’s kind, dependable, and spends her days cleaning houses in Post-World-War II London to earn a living. She also seems a bit stuck waiting for news of her husband Eddie’s whereabouts (he went missing in action during the war). Despite this, Ada carries on with warmth, humor, and joie de vivre that’s especially evident in her strong friendships with Vi (Ellen Thomas) and Archie (Jason Isaacs). When Ada is cleaning the home of one of her wealthy clients, she spots a gorgeous Dior gown that literally sparkles in its establishing shot. While her client doesn’t seem to fully appreciate this sartorial work of art, Ada is entirely enamored. Another actress may make this feel trivial, but Manville’s emotional specificity turns this moment of childlike wonder into one of endless possibilities for the character. When she articulates her goal of going to Paris to get that dress, you have no choice but to champion her emphatically. Manville convinces you that it means something more.
From the first shot, director Anthony Fabian imbues the film with a delightful bit of magical realism, recalling musicals of the 1960s like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and My Fair Lady. While Ada isn’t singing ballads about her desire to travel to Paris, the musicality and fanciful camerawork warm the screen, alerting the audience that anything in Ada’s future is possible, no matter how unrealistic it may seem. There’s a fine line between sparkling magic and absolute realism, and Fabian walks it gracefully. This balanced tone allows the viewer to embrace that somehow, due to a combination of good luck, help from friends, and closure related to her husband, she’s able to make the journey to Paris to get her Dior gown. After all, she couldn’t be known as the girl who didn’t go to Paris.
When Ada arrives at the House of Dior, she meets the woman who runs the show, Madame Colbert (Isabelle Huppert). What could’ve been a flat, archetypal character is instead injected with humor and nuance by a sharp-tongued Huppert. Huppert’s seriousness blended with her comedic timing and animated line reading of “it’s haute couture” is just one of many reasons not to miss this film. Fabian’s goal of authentically depicting London and Paris is made apparent in the casting of Manville and Huppert, who we trust implicitly as they are constants in British and French film.
For fans of Manville’s Oscar-nominated turn as Cyril Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s poisonous delight, Phantom Thread, it’s thrilling to witness her return to a 1950s couture fashion house, especially because Ada is quite the foil to Cyril. She’s not concerned with order and how things should be done but with how they should be done fairly. Much to the chagrin of Madame Colbert, Ada finds a seat at the fashion show next to a helpful French aristocrat, Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson). It’s a delight to experience the fashion show through Ada’s eyes, instantly transporting us to the world of 1950s Dior couture, brought to life beautifully by costume designer Jenny Beavan and production designer Luciana Arrighi. This isn’t your typical Paris Fashion Week, large-scale runway show where you could theoretically blend in if you wish. Here, there is nothing but the front row. Ada is in a tight, brightly lit room with a handful of buyers and aristocrats–the type of people she would only cross paths with in London if they were paying her for a cleaning job. That doesn’t seem to bother her, though. With the help of an idealistic accountant André (Lucas Bravo), Ada selects her dress–albeit her second choice, an emerald confection titled “Venus.”
Naturally, Ada doesn’t realize that you cannot just walk into Dior and expect the experience that you would get at your standard department store, or even at today’s Dior boutiques where you can buy a dress off the rack. These dresses are custom-made and so glamorous that they take weeks and dozens of seamstresses to make. They are one of a kind, just like Ada. Her good luck continues when André offers her a place to stay while his sister is out of town. No matter where she is, Ada can’t help but make others’ lives a little bit easier, often forcing them to see their worth as individuals. This is most apparent in her matchmaking efforts between André and Dior model Natasha (Alba Baptiste). This movie is also so genuinely nice that I didn’t roll my eyes when two model-actors bonded over their shared love of Sartre. I just smiled.
In addition to Mrs. Harris’ fun Parisian adventures with the Marquis de Chassagne, her fittings at the atelier, and playing matchmaker to Natasha and André, there are political themes bubbling up under the surface. Through the script, Fabian deftly shows that this isn’t simply about Ada’s quest for the dress, as the original source material depicts. While sometimes on the nose, the film’s commentary on invisibility and how fashion houses were actually run by the multitudes of women in the male fashion designer’s orbit, works to strengthen the viewers’ connection to Ada and her experiences. The film even uses her journey of self-discovery to show how the exclusivity surrounding couture fashion houses was not sustainable. If anyone can save Dior, why wouldn’t it be someone with gumption and perspective like Ada?
On the surface, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is a film about Ada’s quest to buy the couture gown of her dreams, but much like Ada herself, there is more than meets the eye. Ada initially struggles to find her purpose, waiting for some type of sign that she can kick start her life again. The dress is more than just a trivial object hanging in her client’s closet; it’s a beacon of hope that reinvigorates her sense of adventure and discovery. Ada goes to Paris searching for a Dior gown, but she returns with something even more beautiful, a newfound sense of confidence and an openness to love.
Focus Features will release Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris only in theaters on July 15.
Photo: Dávid Lukács / Ada Films Ltd