Had Anthony Fabian’s comedy been produced when its source material was published in 1958 it would probably be cited today as an earnest, heartwarming example of postwar British cinema. It might even have been considered a classic. But it’s hard to view it nowadays within its temporal context, since its entire basis for being entertainment is nostalgia for a time when the notion of a woman breaching the bonds of class and gender was a quaint one at best. The titular cleaning lady (Lesley Manville) is a war widow who still talks to her dead husband from a bridge overlooking the Thames and knows her station. Fabian pokes fun at Mrs. Harris’s clients, who range from a stuffy upper-class couple to a desperate, scatter-brained show biz ingenue, while showing how those in Mrs. Harris’s own class are closer to the truth of life, even if they don’t have the material means to enjoy it fully. Then, through a string of improbable good—and bad—fortune, Mrs. Harris finds herself in the possession of a little money and decides she’s going to blow it on a Christian Dior dress, which necessitates a trip to Paris.
Most reviewers who’ve had a positive take on Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris characterize it as a fairy tale, meaning it’s a feel good story that could never actually happen, but for an instance I thought the movie might be heading toward something more thematically substantial. When Mrs. Harris arrives in the City of Light, she’s met with a garbage strike, a somewhat pointed comic comment on the French penchant for working class solidarity, and the sight of piles of rubbish outside the House of Dior seemed as meaningful as Mrs. Harris’s own quixotic mission to buy a haute couture “frock” with bundles of banknotes. There’s also the matter that Dior is having its own cash flow problems, which means the haughty manager, Claudine (Isabelle Huppert), has to swallow her pride and let the frumpy, Cockney-accented housekeeper sit among the rich old dames who watch the latest season of new ensembles, even if it is at the behest of a nobleman (Lambert Wilson) who takes pity on Mrs. Harris and vouches for her. But Fabian does nothing to build on the comically and historically significant elements presented by this tableau and simply milks it for its sentimental value, even when, later on in the story, Mrs. Harris instigates a work stoppage by the seamstresses who actually produce the wares.
What kept me from cringing to death was Manville, an actor whose subtle skills I have always taken for granted. She gives Fabian exactly what he wants, a character whose selflessness and good humor masks her general disappointment with how her life has turned out, and thus is more than grateful when her luck changes for the better. What Manville brings to this professional obligation is a total immersion in character that somehow transcends the stickiness of the film’s premise, which is that Mrs. Harris will never herself transcend her position and thus we shouldn’t expect her to try, expensive dress or no expensive dress. She’s a joy to watch, especially as you compare this to her current turn as Princess Margaret in The Crown. The two performances are literally a world apart, and extremely satisfying; even, you might say, edifying.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris home page in Japanese
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