The summer’s most powerful superhero is a British widow who wants to buy a dress. And with Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, that hero is born. Pornography for the vacation-starved and unpretentious about the joys of fashion, the film finds the uncommon alchemy that elevated films like Mamma Mia! and The Devil Wears Prada before it from summer counterprogramming for women and gays to adored feel-good classics. Nowhere else this summer will you get such divine, tried-and-true cinematic comforts as opulent costumes, British wit, and Isabelle Huppert being a total asshole.
Oscar nominee Lesley Manville stars as the eponymous Ada Harris, a working class cleaning woman in post-WWII London. At the delayed news of her husband’s death in action, Ada scrapes together a tight budget to pursue her newfound dream of purchasing a couture Christian Dior gown. Without saying as much, the dress is meant as an ushering into a new chapter, a reminder to the world that she still has a life to be lived. Once in Paris, our everyday heroine is confronted with unexpected barriers of class and presumed taste both in her interactions with the French upper crust and within the Dior fashion house. But her journey is one that brings out the kindness and goodness of almost everyone she encounters, each of them moved by her earnest enthusiasm and indefatigably warm heart.
Yes, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is indeed nicecore. The majority of the film hinges on the inherent niceness of people and their willingness to pleasantly surprise you when given half the chance, not to mention the radiating virtue of its heroine. Lately the likes of Ted Lasso or Marcel the Shell with Shoes On have charmed fans with their relentless optimism, resulting in plenty of annoyed detractors begging for a little more depth. This movie is not not that. For some, the film might appear to be that kind of rigidly good-natured sweetness to run away from. But graciously Mrs. Harris offers characters that aren't solely defined by their ability to be nice to one another against the odds, and Manville is consistently finding new shades to her heroine’s bubblysad resolve up until the film’s final moments. It takes a lot of sophistication to keep a film like this from becoming cloying. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is the champagne of nicecore.
Though Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is nothing if not a decadent exaltation of middlebrow sensibilities, it eschews solely superficial concerns. It’s simplistic, for sure, and occasionally imperfect too—particularly in failing to develop Vi (played by Ellen Thomas), Ada’s friend back home, reducing her to yet another example of the one-dimensional Black friend character seen all too often in this kind of well-meaning film. Kindness is part of its fantasy, but the film does not shy away from the dynamics of the real world, and not just in the lingering despair of post-WII grief. The backdrop of a Parisian garbage removal strike (honestly the price of admission is earned by Manville saying the word “binmen”) mirrors the inequality within the walls of Dior, where the average worker feels disposable and undervalued. Unexpectedly and earnestly, the film is as much about the emotional connections we develop to fashion as it is about labor rights, with aspirational customer Mrs. Harris Dior’s symbolic Norma Rae.
You can’t be a kindness punk without a villain, and the film selects France’s finest for the task. Ada’s sole opposition is the aforementioned Huppert as Claudine Colbert, wide-eyed at Ada’s blissful ignorance of the norms her life has been devoted to upholding. As Dior’s “directress,” Colbert envisions herself as the hero of the house of Dior by maintaining its internal social order and high-end clientele, and is flummoxed as Ada quickly becomes its mascot and ultimate champion. But she isn’t solely a monster either, more of a haughty bureaucrat, made funnier by Huppert’s vacillation between squawking concern and withering control, delivering Pretty Woman “it’s very expensive” textures as only she could. She and the rest of the film’s delightful cast — Emily in Paris’ Lucas Bravo in “dashing but not boring” mode, Lambert Wilson as a rich widower with a mustache, a ye olde Guinness-brandishing Jason Isaacs — all contribute to the high rewatchability factor that elevates this movie from a nice distraction to something special.
But there may not be a better actress to embody the film’s tone than Manville, who gets to play seemingly all of the shades of her massive range in this one textured character. Best known for her performances as a flibbertigibbet wino with a heart of gold in Mike Leigh’s Another Year and the no-bullshit couture ringleader in Phantom Thread, Manville finds in Mrs. Harris an amalgam of her finest work, claiming bonafide movie star status alongside some of her peers. After decades in smaller roles (many of them within Leigh’s work), it’s doubly rewarding to see her given this kind of film-carrying showcase; rooting for the character and the actress feels like one and the same. The actress (also assuming the producer’s chair for the first time) is tasked with equal parts fantasy and tragedy: loving, losing, losing what wasn’t there to begin with, and finding her power by standing up for what is right for the everyday person, all while adorned in swoonworthy costumes by Jenny Beavan. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is the rapturous cinema of a woman self-actualizing, and Manville caresses it to its full, cathartic potential.
Paul Gallico’s mid-century novel on which the film is based, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris (the film’s only stuffiness is that it dropped this dialect-emphasizing apostrophe), birthed a series that found Ada going to New York, Moscow, and Parliament (honestly, work). The foundation is already there for Manville to have her own franchise. And after this joyous, not-as-treacly-as-it-appears first trip, where Mrs. Harris goes, I shall follow.
Chris Feil is a freelance entertainment writer with work in Vanity Fair, Vulture, The AVClub, and Polygon, among others. He co-hosts the film podcast This Had Oscar Buzz.