She's the Manville
I don’t quite think that Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is a good movie, but it did manage to make me into a fan. And that credit belongs almost entirely to its lead performance by Lesley Manville as Mrs. Harris. This is not the kind of performance that is typically award season fodder (though Lord knows there have been sillier Oscar nominations), and I don’t think I’d put it as one of the five best lead actress performances of the year, but I do think Manville demands some kind of recognition. She takes what could have been the most twee and cloying shit and spins it into gold. The movie’s plot depends on many people instantly treating Mrs. Harris as the most special and interesting person in the room, when in fact the point of her character is that she’s quite ordinary. And yet Manville actually makes me believe it! If this Mrs. Harris knocked on my front door, I damn well would be offering her a mug of tea and a couch to sleep on.
The film, based on a 1958 novel by Paul Gallico of nearly the same name (Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris), follows a house cleaner who comes into a sum of money when she receives backpayments on a war-widow’s pension. She decides to spend this money on a fancy Dior dress and so travels to the fashion line’s HQ. Any guesses in which city that’s located?
Through a series of contrivances, Mrs. Harris gets wrapped up in the lives of various models and office workers at Dior while she waits for her fancy dress to be made. All along the way we have themes of rejecting pretentiousness and embracing workers’ rights. Things end cheerfully and upliftingly, some characters get together, yada yada, but there’s some strangeness on the fringes: Mrs. Harris briefly organizes a strike, and there’s a baffling runner about characters quoting Nietzsche.
The script isn’t strictly bad, I don’t think, but it’s operating in a very unhurried manner that just didn’t work for me. A bunch of little episodes drag on longer than expected throughout the film, always giving the sense that the plot should have advanced more than it has. She doesn’t even make it to Paris for over a half hour! The film clocks in at under two hours but felt a lot longer than that to me.
Most of the characters are pleasant people played by skilled actors, with the exception of Claudine (Isabelle Huppert), who is an unpleasant person played by a skilled actor. All of the characters hold just enough interest that I was never quite bored, but also rarely enthralled, while they were on screen.
A major appeal of the film is in its production. Nine times out of ten in 2022, a film with narrative ambitions like this would be a cheap streaming dump, but this looks a little bit better than that, in line with its theatrical release and $10 million budget. The fashion is a major focus, and sure enough the designer dresses are delicate and inspiring. The catwalk and dresses are shot by director Anthony Fabian with the tenderness of someone who genuinely loves fashion (or is a good faker). He even occasionally throws in some little flashes of style. (This movie has my favorite dolly zoom “Vertigo shot” of 2022, deployed on Lesley Manville’s face when she spots an amazing gown for the first time.)
Overall, though, I really can’t quite give Mrs. Harris a recommendation. It’s a bit too much of a lumbering slog; maybe if it was 85 minutes instead of 115. But, damn it, I really wanted to love it. Manville is just that good.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film