Sunday, November 6, 2022

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

It's always nice to see a good lead role come around for a talented character actor to take, but it's more than Lesley Manville's winning turn as the larger-than-life title character that makes this twee Paris adventure worth the admiration.

Adapted from the book by Paul Gallico.

Mrs. Harris is a war widow and cleaning lady. She has a slightly sad and woefully average existence, and sentimental, hopeful side that's too big for her circumstances. She decides she wants to go to Paris and buy a Christian Dior dress. She thinks it's meant to be. And maybe it is—her faith is rewarded with some good financial luck, and off she goes. Of course, it's not going to be so easy as to plop down some cash and grab a dress—but neither is it going to be so hard as to not be a fun and airy ride. 

The balance between difficulties that arise and their sometimes magical solutions is what made this movie work as a whole for me. I'm not the biggest fan of twee entertainment simply because there never seems to be real stakes and all the conflict is simple misunderstandings. Pack on top of that characters who only exist to live out the wish fulfillment plot, and the affair turns boring fast. Mrs. Harris skips over that. First of all, she herself is an interesting and three-dimensional character. The people she meets are also more complex than "good guy" or "bad guy" and the movie takes turns in developing them, too. And while some conflict is resolved through luck or "magic" here, that does have a thematic reason, not just resolving things because they need to be resolved. 

Great romantic subplot. But I'll get to that later...

I suppose it is very twee to say that things work out for Mrs. Harris because she's a kind and giving person who reaps as she sows. There is truth in that, but in real life perhaps not quite so overt. At any rate it satisfied both my taste for cozy entertainment, and my critical eye against lazy plotting. Lesley Manville shines in the role, big, warm, and delightful, and could have held my attention alone. She is joined, though, by a large and fleshed-out supporting cast. From her best friend, and her clients at home, to the Marquis in Paris who befriends her, to the dressmakers and models, right down to the politely nervous Air Force officer who brings her one of her bits of luck.

Every cozy adventure needs romance. And no, Mrs. Harris isn't too old for it herself, but a young couple in a movie like this will never be a waste, and in this case, they were my favorite aspect of all. Natasha, model, enormously pretty and face of Dior, who doesn't want the limelight or the job of entertaining top clients. And AndrĂ©, Dior's mild-mannered accountant. It is very much a side plot, but hits every note of the romantic arc with perfect ease simply by setting up the characters the right way. It is brief, and familiar, but full of strong moments that pushed all the right romantic buttons. And I rarely mention something like this, but it's vastly important here, and the best aspect along with Lesley Manville and the two adorable French lovebirds. Costumes. 

I feel like such a girl, but it's true. The costumes were practically a character themselves.

It's a movie about buying a Dior dress, after all. The scene that shows the collection is pivotal, and for more reason than that Mrs. Harris picks out the dress she wants. We get to see it all, as if we're invited to pick our favorites as well. As a girl, it worked on me. Even as a girl who likes story and character more than pretty costumes. The pretty costumes got to me. They were great. Vital. And extended beyond the Dior collection, too. Everyone is dressed with expert attention all the time, fitting and enhancing their character. It's the focus of the movie, which I might raise an eyebrow at in other circumstances, but here it bolsters the production quality, and doesn't get in the way of character or story either. An ideal balance.

So maybe it's not my typical kind of movie in theory—but it turns out that any story can be well-made, hit satisfying beats with well-developed characters, and make itself worth its existence as more than eye candy. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is an all-around treat. 

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