Lesley Manville has made an art form of “the welcome mat woman”. Few in her field can so well capture the unspoken resignation of under-appreciation. To that end, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris offers an astute follow up to Manville’s showcase work in Stefan Golaszewski’s BAFTA winning sitcom Mum. It is a film that takes the burgeoning power beneath Manville’s performance in the latter show and allows it free reign to take on the world. The result is every bit as sweetly empowering as one could hope.
In taking on the role of Ada Harris, the fastidious heroine of the mid century book series by Paul Gallico, Manville finds herself in surprisingly esteemed company. Her Ada follows televisual turns by the likes of Gracie Fields, Inge Meysel and Angela Lansbury. Not bad going. Manville is a more gentile star than they but the perfect performer to debut the character on bigger screens. Make no mistake about it, there’s muscle beneath the marigolds.
For the uninitiated, Mrs H is a charlady in the dying embers of a socially polar 1950s London. Her clients range from delusional aristocrats and wannabe socialites to a businessman with a difference “niece” visiting every night of the week. Discretion is everything in this line of work. Ada commutes alongside bubbly best friend Vi (a delightful Ellen Thomas) and lights a soft candle for twinkly Irishman Archie (Jason Isaacs) at their evening sojourns in the local taproom. That sadness you detect is the lingering shadow of Ada’s husband, a war veteran still missing in action over a decade on from VE Day.
It is a fairly featherlight plot that sees the action of the film stimulated by Ada’s sudden desire to own a House of Dior dress, having stumbled upon one in a client’s wardrobe. Louder than Words director Anthony Fabian captures this moment of transcendent discovery through the glow of a retracting zoom. It’s gloriously daft but no more so than the string of fortunate happenstance that gifts Ada the opportunity to fly over to Paris with the necessary funds to buy her own. Funds, it transpires, that Dior is in desperate need of. Times are a changing and the House has yet to catch up. Perhaps a cleaner from Battersea can help.
Besides Manville, Mrs Harris’ strongest asset must be the coup recruitment of Jenny Beavan as costume designer. So strong is the eleven time Oscar nominee’s work here that one would think the film’s budget were at least double the relatively paltry $13 million it had to play with. A petite fashion show midway through the film is so lush that, for a moment, audiences will completely understand Ada’s obsessive desire to splash out. Even away from the haute couture, Beavan delights in the chic potential of contemporary Paris. There’s something very Audrey Hepburn about the dressing of Alba Baptista’s already stunning Dior model Natasha.
There are, of course, hurdles in the way of Ada’s happily ever after – a wasted Isabelle Huppert among them – but the journey to it rarely surprises. Whether it needs to is a different matter. There’s something rather pleasing about the refreshing simplicity of a story that gives the middle aged, working class Mrs Harris a goal and the singleminded will to achieve it.
Yes, despite daft dabbles in Sartrean philosophy, Mrs Harris’ offering is, ultimately, rarely more than tulle deep. And yet, that’s ok. This is feel good, middle aged fairy tale material and when the plot does eventually bring Ada back down to earth, it’s decidedly more bouncy than it once was. The willing viewer may find a little more spring in the steps out of the auditorium themselves.