This summer, the movies have given us jet fighters, rampaging dinosaurs, Minions, multiple superheroes, and even the King of Rock and Roll. It's a total surprise, then, that one of the most emotionally satisfying films of the season is about a dress. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris deserves to become a sleeper hit. It's warm and funny, with a theme about contentment in life that feels soothing in these troubled times. Even if you don't care about dresses or fashion, this wonderful picture will put a smile on your face a mile wide.
You probably know someone just like Ada Harris (Let Him Go's Lesley Manville), even though she lives in 1950s England. She toils dutifully as a cleaning lady for a wealthy couple. Her meager earnings are put toward food, utilities, and an occasional drink at the local pub with admirer Archie (Jason Isaacs). A widow, she has never been able to afford anything close to the luxuries enjoyed by her employers. That includes the gorgeous Christian Dior dress Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor) casually tosses in a closet. Taking things for granted simply isn't in Ada's playbook.
That's why, after coming into unexpected money, she ventures to London with the sole purpose of blowing the cash on a Christian Dior dress of her own. That she has no occasion to wear it is beside the point. It's about having a small taste of elegance. Ada crashes a Dior fashion show, to the dismay of snooty gatekeeper Claudine Colbert (Isabelle Huppert), a woman who has vowed to protect the privileged status of Dior no matter what. Claudine goes to great lengths to prevent Ada from buying a dress, and to sabotage her fittings after she buys one anyway. Amid all this, Ada finds an important ally in the Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson), a well-respected gentleman who empathizes with her plight.
Believe it or not, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris reminds me of Caddyshack. The films are nothing alike in terms of story or humor, yet they share a desire to explore elitism. Caddyshack is only about golf on the surface. Underneath is a tale about working class people knocking the rich, discriminatory country club snobs down a peg. Ada Harris's behavior isn't as calculated. She knocks the snobs down by being a good person, winning the support of the low-level Dior workers who can feel how much her dress means to her. Nevertheless, the whole point of the plot is that certain individuals want to keep her from possessing a tiny bit of luxury. Because she's a house cleaner, they don't think she deserves it. Ada knows otherwise. Just because she isn't rich doesn't mean she doesn't deserve to feel good about herself.
Lesley Manville's performance is vital to the movie's success. The actress brings all the key emotions to life, letting us feel Ada's longing to treat herself to something special, as well as the deep-seated belief that she is worthy of it. That allows the character's quest to obtain a dress mean almost as much to us as it does to her. More importantly, Manville gives Ada such fundamental decency that we believe she would be an inspiration to the cutters and seamstresses who work for Dior – people who probably can't afford to purchase the items they manufacture. Isabelle Huppert is a perfect foil, conveying Claudine's nastiness while simultaneously suggesting an insecurity inside. Her scenes with Manville are riveting.
The film has one or two very surprising plot twists in the final twenty minutes. They aren't cheap gimmicks, though. Those moments add depth and meaning to the story. Everything culminates in one of the sweetest, most poignant endings I've seen in a long time. If you want to feel good for two straight hours, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is the movie to see this summer.
out of four
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is rated PG for suggestive material, language, and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.