Those familiar with my work know I love a fun, nostalgic period piece. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris certainly fits that bill. It’s very pink. It’s very girly. Looking at the poster, you can envision it sitting on the summer “beach read” or “chic lit” bookshelf (which it did). With the film version of the novel of the (almost) same name opening in theaters this week, how does it match up to expectations? Does it tap into the nostalgic goodness exploding off the poster? Well, read on!
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris follows the story of a war widow (Lesley Manville) who, after experiencing a swath of good luck, follows her dream to go to Paris and finally buy herself the Dior gown she’s been yearning for. While there, the titular Mrs. Ada Harris falls into the usual Parisian experience. There’s life, love, champaign and of course fashion. Anthony Fabian directs the film from a script he co-wrote with Carroll Cartwright, Keith Thompson and Olivia Hetreed. The script comes from the novel by Paul Gallico. Jason Isaacs, Alba Baptista, Lucas Bravo and Isabelle Huppert co-star in the movie.
Jumping straight in, Lesley Manville is of course the gem of this picture in her portrayal of Ada Harris. Manville is a darling of “Film Twitter” and this writer certainly agrees with the consensus. Manville deserves far, far more love than she receives. The actress stole the show in 2017’s Phantom Thread and a look over her filmography shows multiple roles where she shines, but is ultimately such a chameleon she fades effortlessly into each and every part. The actors who make it look too easy never receive the respect they’re due and this is certainly Manville’s struggle. She’s too good.
With that being said, Manville easily tackles the complexities of this character and revels in every moment, from the melancholy to the empowerment and even the giddy romance. She is very much the emotional heart of this movie and her likability fuels the narrative. This would be a far different role in the hands of another actress and the film is better off for it.
Ultimately though, with so many writers credited on this script, the narrative does end up feeling a bit… thin… in the grand scheme of things. As mentioned, much of the emotional power revolves around Mrs. Harris. Unfortunately, while there are some adorable performances by the supporting cast, they are largely hung out to dry by the screenplay.
This is particularly true of Baptista and Bravo, the movie’s young lovers. Don’t get me wrong, they are precious and I would have been all about this relationship in my twenties; however, aside from being cute, there’s little behind the bond. Both performers do what they can, but each have very little to do… aside from being adorable, that is. There are tantalizing hints at some interesting character work, from Favel’s (Bravo) creative and commercial aspirations, to Natasha’s (Baptista) passion for philosophy. Unfortunately, the film is never able to capitalize on them.
This over-arching narrative of Mrs. Harris finding herself in Paris allows Manville to shine. However, things are muddled towards the end of the second and into the third act as the script struggles with how to handle the subject of… as the French say, l’amour.
The movie presents two men for Mrs. Harris in the shape of working man Archie (Isaacs) and an elegant French Marquis (Lambert Wilson). Once again, neither really has a lot to do and when all is said and done and the final decision is made, the conclusion feels frustrating. Ada goes through such struggle and growth throughout this narrative (and Manville thrives in the opportunity) to weigh this development down by shoehorning in a romance with two men who (arguably) are not good enough for her, is a let-down. The power in this story is in the friendships Ada makes, not the romances.
The same is true for the great Isabelle Huppert as Claudine, Dior’s antagonistic head-mistress. For much of the film, Huppert has little more to do than twirl her metaphorical mustache. Does this woman not like Mrs. Harris because she’s the villain of our story? Is she a snob? Is she just… French? We never really find out. The story attempts some character development for her deep into act two, but it largely falls on deaf ears. As soon as we get it, she once again fades into the background.
Period pieces, specifically looking at this post-WWII era usually depict the world through an idyllic pair of rose colored glasses. Director Anthony Fabian melds with his creative team in an attempt to do this, but the candy colored, satiny gloss of the movie is a little faded.
It’s difficult to say if this choice was intentional on the part of the creative team. There is a certain melancholy air to the story, especially early in act one and I did wonder if this tone plays into the choice. There is a greater sense of weighty realism in British films depicting the World War Two era. After all, fighting reached their shores in a way the United States didn’t experience. This can also be seen in movies like Dunkirk and Their Finest. Thinking about it, it’s easy to understand these works lacking the pep we often see in Hollywood when shooting this era. The war was far more real and the human toll for more visible and we do see a this present in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.
It could very well be argued that this slightly muted photography is a statement on the melancholy following the war. However, it doesn’t take long for the film to shift to Paris and Dior. This story is about fashion. It is about glamour. It is about finding yourself and following your dreams, why couldn’t we see a more vivid, stylish aesthetic? Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
As I sit here looking over this review, it probably sounds like I didn’t like Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. I don’t think this is quite true. When all is said and done, this is an incredible sweet, plucky viewing. Lesley Manville is the heart and soul of the period piece and she utterly sells it. In the hands of a different actress, this would be a completely different and less effective movie. As is though, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is a ofwork fun nostalgic eye-candy for those looking for something a little sweeter this summer. I enjoyed the viewing, just keep your expectations in check. Those with a yearning for nostalgic rom-coms should certainly add this to their lists.