Anglophiles and Paul Thomas Anderson fan-persons might recognize the lead in Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, Leslie Manville, as the manipulative sister (Cyril Woodcock) in PTA’s 2017 masterpiece, The Phantom Thread.
Although these films are centered around the world of haute couture, it’s hard to imagine more different roles. While both touch on the transformative nature of high fashion, The Phantom Thread is a tense study of power dynamics, whereas Mr Harris Goes to Paris is a light, feel-good comedy.
Ada Harris (Manville) is a put-upon war widow in 1950s London, scrubbing floors and generally laboring without gratitude for the upper classes. Exposed to their wardrobes, when she comes into some money, she determines to go to Paris and buy herself a Christian Dior dress from the atelier showroom itself.
Having established her low station, the plot runs on a series of convenient coincidences and turns of luck to place her as a welcomed oddity in the world of high fashion, the entirety of Paris rallying behind her aside from the abrasive company enforcer Madame Colbert (Isabelle Huppert). As Ada doesn’t know the etiquette, she helps people - models, accountants and even a Marquis - cast aside their snobbish rules, in a kind of ‘innocent abroad’ romp involving everything from matchmaking to kindly vagrants.
Ada speaks almost entirely in Cockney idioms, calls everybody ‘ducks’, and makes serial remarks of the kind that Mr Dior “looks like my milkman”, though Manville’s charisma keeps it just shy of parody. The themes of working class invisibility and a life spent wishing instead of doing give it a little edge, but mostly it’s a cheery adventure without too many stakes.
It won’t change your life, and there’s a fair amount of suspension of disbelief required, but it’s a fun enough story and cor blimey guv’nor luv a duck would you Adam n' Eve it, even cynics will be rooting for old Ada by the final act. PO
Mrs Harris goes to Paris is showing now at the Prytania Canal Place