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Say Yes to the Dress

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Dávid Lukács/Focus Features

MOVIE REVIEW
Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris (2022)

Sometimes a gem comes along at just the right time to cheer everybody up. In 2022, that gem is “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” which is about the importance of kindness, community and good clothes, three things the world has been sorely lacking these last horrible years. It stars Lesley Manville as the most lovable British heroine since Bridget Jones, is about a journey of self-discovery via haute couture and is rated PG. Not since David Mamet made “The Winslow Boy” has a movie so adult also been appropriate for all ages. But this one is much better looking.

It's 1957 and Ada Harris (Ms. Manville) is a cleaner from Battersea, a working-class part of South London. Her husband Eddie disappeared in the war but she still wears her wedding ring in case he comes home. She commutes by bus with her best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas) and in the evenings they meet in the pub with their mate Archie (Jason Isaacs, dusting off the flawless Northern Irish accent he first used as the deliciously named Cow Pat Keegan in “Divorcing Jack”). One of Mrs. Harris’s clients is the appalling Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor, Duckface herself), who is hiding a £500 couture Christian Dior gown from her husband while she repeatedly tells Mrs. Harris that her wages will be paid next week. But that gown changes something in Mrs. Harris. It’s a thing of absolute beauty, of moonlight; and she realizes she wants one for herself.

Shortly after this her luck changes, and after a few tribulations finds herself in Paris, on the doorstep of Dior’s atelier, with a handbag full of rolled-up banknotes. The directrice Madame Colbert (Isabelle Huppert) doesn’t wish to let her in, but between head model Natasha (Alba Baptista) and a marquis (Lambert Wilson), Mrs. Harris finds herself on the front row of a private view of Dior’s 10th season. She chooses a dress that Madame Colbert refuses to sell her until office manager André (Lucas Bravo, who between this and “Ticket to Paradise” has had a busy month) reminds everyone she has cash on the nail; and their need of her money must override their snobbery. But the dress will take time to make so Mrs. Harris must stay a little longer than she’d planned. And then Paris does its magic on everybody.

Well, not entirely. There’s a bin strike on, so the world’s most romantic city stinks. The other customers sneer at Mrs. Harris, but the workers are impressed by her respect for them as well as her own invisible mending skills. Natasha is of course unhappy to be earning her living thanks to her looks; and André (who is styled to resemble the young Hugh Grant down to the stammering) is of course helplessly in love with her mind. The scenes where a supermodel and a finance guy discuss philosophy while Mrs. Harris lovingly rolls her eyes are adorable/hilarious. Better still, Christian Dior himself (Philippe Bertin) barely figures. Despite the philosophical sweet nothings, this is not a movie about ideas. It’s about work and the workers who do it. There are carpets to hoover and dishes to wash, waists to measure and ribbons to cut. One character goes so far as to announce he is a communist.

But the best thing director Anthony Fabian does, on top of his class awareness and constant discussion of money, is that he never condescends. Mrs. Harris keeps making mistakes. She lets her emotions run away with her; she is nice to people who take complete advantage of her; and she doesn’t know how to stand up for herself. In the big showdown between her and Madame Colbert, who dishes out insults without pausing for breath, Ms. Manville gives an acting masterclass in polite disbelief turning into wounded feelings that don’t know how to express themselves. But beneath it all, Mrs. Harris knows she is not a nobody. She is a woman buying a Dior gown! The clothes, designed by three-time Oscar winner Jenny Beavan, are a delight. Mrs Harris’s everyday hat! The betassled dancers thrown around in the cabaret! And the utterly wonderful fashion parade, which manages to channel vintage Dior while still looking modern.

How can you not love this? The work Ms. Manville does here is charming without being schmaltzy, salt-of-the-earth without being an insulting cliché, and quietly radical without being ridiculous. Of course Marguerite (Roxane Duran), head salesgirl of the atelier, is thrilled to have a customer whose arse she doesn’t have to kiss. Of course Vi and Archie worry and are prepared to take drastic action to prove it. Of course Natasha is charmed to make a friend who is impressed by her work ethic instead of her looks. And of course André is delighted by a perspective that might shake up the entire fashion industry if he knows how to listen. Here is a woman who has impulsively decided to blow all her money – all the money she’s ever likely to have, in fact – on an impossible thing she will never need. But this is her dream, and she is so determined for her dream to come true, especially after all the hard knocks her life has dished out, that you have to be on her side. You just have to be. And if you aren’t, if you don’t like “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” you are a grinch, a cowardly custard, a box of rocks with a shriveled heart and sweatpants where your brain should be. What a thing of beauty.

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