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Film review: Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

14 October 2022

Stephen Brown enjoys a Paul Gallico adaptation

Lesley Manville as Ada Harris in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, on current release

Lesley Manville as Ada Harris in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, on current release

THE film Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris (Cert. PG) is an utterly delightful parable, a pearl of great price. With its warm-hearted appeal, you see why it is not the first adaptation of Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel. In post-war London, Ada Harris is a charlady methodically cleaning up after not always gracious employers. She is played by Lesley Manville as a somewhat put-upon but nevertheless cheery individual, a living example of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” mentality.

The film’s central motif, aided by references to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, is that we are more than outward appearances. Below the surface lies an abiding anxiety about whether Ada’s husband is alive or dead. More than that, she, like anyone else, dreams of a better life. Ada’s aspirations don’t necessarily lie in the same direction as those that she serves, but there comes a day she falls in love with a Christian Dior dress in a client’s wardrobe. The sheer beauty of this creation, not some materialistic craving, spurs her into a savings drive to buy one.

Working harder than ever, she pursues the seemingly impossible dream. When she leaves Battersea for Paris, her innate kindness is reciprocated by people she encounters — from beggars at the railway station to the people who frequent the house of Dior. Ada’s zest for life abundantly brings forth fruits of the Spirit in others. Hers is a gift that keeps on giving, bringing a young couple (Lucas Bravo and Alba Baptista) together, charming the socks off a marquis (Lambert Wilson), disarming Dior’s director of operations (Isabelle Huppert), and apparently the inspiration behind the great couturier’s “New Look”.

The story could so easily have become Cinderella. Yes, there are several fairy godmothers (and angels) along the way, and also a great staircase moment, but no glass slipper or rescuing prince is involved. Instead, we have a tale in which the invisible (our hopes and needs) are made visible, and the ordinary is infused with extraordinary glory, and all because one person, like the merchant in Jesus’s parable, follows her bliss. She has seen something that for her constitutes ultimate splendour and through seeking it discovers an inner freedom by which she learns to express sincerely and fearlessly what and who she is.

It is worth questioning the film’s parabolic structure. Is it, in all truth, an earthly story with a heavenly meaning? It’s certainly not allegory with symbolical significance for every aspect of the plot. Rather as in the Lost Coin, the dress acts as metaphor, representing a sign of God’s Kingdom, which, to those with eyes to see it, is perpetually breaking into our world. As R. S. Thomas suggested, “It’s a long way off, but to get There takes no time” for the pure in heart. Mrs Harris ventures into what for her was a far-country meeting with strangers who become friends and gives them, as it were, a New Look. In the process, she finds her true self.

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