‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’: Lesley Manville Charms as a Cleaning Lady With Couture Dreams

A war widow seeks to grab hold of some happiness in her life and ends up inspiring others along the way in “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” a mid-century couture comedy from Anthony Fabian, based on a novel by Paul Gallico. Lesley Manville plays Ada Harris, a cleaning lady in 1950s London who travels to France to buy a Christian Dior dress after unexpectedly coming into a little bit of money. But this film is about more than one woman’s quest to acquire a high-fashion piece of clothing. It also explores a changing Europe post-WWII and how one person’s optimism and determination to follow a dream can positively impact others.

“There isn’t enough kindness in the world, so I think her kindness was a huge draw for me,” Fabian told Entertainment Voice when asked what drew him to Gallico’s 1958 novel, which he adapted for the screen with Xavier Marchand and Guillaume Benski. “Never give up on your dreams is the message of the film. It’s something that I live by. I don’t think you can be a filmmaker and not have that as your motto.”

For more than a decade, Ada has held out hope that her soldier husband Eddie, who is missing in action, would return to her. When his death is confirmed early on in the film, it is, of course, sad, but it allows for her to let go of something that has been holding her back in life. Kind to a fault, her only big flaw is that she lets people take advantage of her at times, including those whom she cleans for, including Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor), who is full of excuses when Ada inquires about overdue payment. It is at Lady Dant’s that she first sees a Dior dress up close, and decides that she must have one, even if it means saving up and traveling all the way to Paris to get it.

After Ada makes up her mind to go to Paris, the universe finally rewards her by sending some funds her way, including an overdue war widow’s pension. Rooting for her in London is Vi (Ellen Thomas), her supportive best friend, a Caribbean immigrant whom she met working in a factory during the war, and Archie (Jason Isaacs), a bookie and dog lover from Northern Ireland who risks his job by helping Ada when she makes a bad bet.

Isaacs revealed to Entertainment Voice that he was attracted to the innocence and optimism in the script. “It was the notion that you could tell a story about good people behaving kindly and that in the end you can melt cynicism and misanthrope with honesty and compassion. There was that, and the sense that it was clearly going to be a big visual adventure.”

Indeed, inside the Dior store in Paris, where wealthy women have dresses made custom for them, is a feast for the eyes. Upon her arrival, Ada is mostly treated with derision, with a few exceptions. There’s André (Lucas Bravo), the Dior accountant who lets Ada stay in his apartment while she waits for her dress to be made, as she didn’t realize it would be a two-week process. Also on her side is Natasha (Alba Baptista), one of the fashion house’s models. Like Ada, both of them have bigger dreams and feel held back by their current circumstances. 

“The film is certainly about this strong woman who’s ahead of her time who certainly has been tested with life’s difficulties and chooses one day to go down an unknown road to follow her dream,” Baptista told Entertainment Voice.

Ada not only plays matchmaker for André and Natasha, but encourages them in their goals, which for Natasha includes studying philosophy, a personal interest of Baptista’s. In addition to modeling for Dior, it is also implied that she is working as an escort.

“[Her employers have her] portraying beauty as her biggest asset, when really her dream is to have her mind be her best asset. Lesley and Lucas’ characters remind her of this, and it’s just this big internal contradiction that she goes through,” explained Baptista of Natasha’s character.

Another important person Ada encounters in Paris is Claudine Colbert (played by the great Isabelle Huppert), the manager of Dior. At first, Claudine comes across as a great snob, but Huppert brings layers to her, and the viewer comes to empathize with her plight as a career woman in the 1950s working for a demanding male boss.

“She brought a quirkiness to the character that I hadn’t expected, and a lot of humor,” said Fabian of Huppert. “So she’s not just playing a two-dimensional baddie in the beginning. She’s playing a very interesting character with many facets, which we discover bit by bit over the course of the film.”

Fabian, Isaacs and Baptista all agreed that working with Manville was a dream. The Oscar-nominee immerses herself in the role, while also giving room for her co-stars to shine. Isaacs admitted to initially being intimidated by her.

He recalled, “I arrived on set and was reminded that the great actors probably chose to do it for the reasons that I chose to do it, which is to connect, to find human connections. She didn’t have to work to put anyone at ease. She is all about forming relationships with the people she’s working with.”

Isaacs went on to perfectly sum up the spirit of “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.” “It’s a film that celebrates people believing in themselves, people believing in their dreams, people believing they have a right to their dreams. Also, it’s a film with relentless grounded positivity. Not mawkish positivity, but optimism.”

“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is a movie about people reclaiming happiness and dreams following a dark period, making it resonate even more post-Covid than it would have just a few years prior.

“What Christian Dior did was create fantasy and magic and a fairytale through the dresses that he designed,” explained Fabian. “So they had an enormous appeal for people who were coming out of this difficult period. Today we’re coming out of another difficult period. We have not only the Covid pandemic, but also the war in Ukraine. We have tremendous economic worries and concerns, and I think what people want is escapism, fantasy, dreams, just as people did after war. There’s a wonderful parallel, from my point-of-view, in terms of people needing to see a film like this now, just to have some magic in their lives and forget their worries.”

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” releases July 15 in theaters nationwide.