Appearing in the middle of the summer movie season, Mrs. Harris goes to Paris is exactly the kind of unassuming, light-hearted fare that seems destined to be overwhelmed by more high-profile offerings built entirely on the work of “below the line” artisans – those people who work behind the scenes of film productions, usually unknown public . In the 21st century, many of these people work on computers on visual effects, but there are many jobs that have been around since the dawn of cinema that are still underappreciated. And in the case of Mrs. Harris goes to Paris– a film with a plot built around the magical allure of a beautiful garment – it seems fitting to reserve a particular degree of praise for costume designer Jenny Beavan.
Mind you, it’s not like Beavan was completely glossed over in her 40+ year career. She won three Oscars for her trophy case, including one last year for Cruel, so it’s fair to say that she’s recognized as one of the best at what she does. But in tackling the third film adaptation of Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel, director Anthony Fabian had the good sense to understand that there are circumstances that demand making the most of it. As lovely as Mrs. Harris goes to Paris that is to say, it just doesn’t work at all without the distinctive flair that Beavan can bring.
Set in London in 1957, it’s the story of a housekeeper named Ada Harris (Lesley Manville), who has only just discovered that the hope she clung to for the life of her husband MIA for more than a decade after the end of the war was useless. At the home of one of her wealthy employers, she spots an expensive Christian Dior dress and becomes obsessed with scraping together every penny she can to get one. When she finally finds herself in Paris, however, she finds that the road to achieving her dream is a little more complicated than she thought.
There’s a familiar fish-out-of-water element to what follows, as good-natured, working-class Ms. Harris mixes and mingle with pretentious Dior employees, including the unofficial manager (Isabelle Huppert) and plus-that is, new friends like a nice Marquis (Lambert Wilson), Dior accounts manager (Lucas Bravo) and a model with an affinity for Sartre (Alba Baptista). Manville provides an appealing presence at the center of it all, in a narrative that somehow dodges some of the more obvious over-bubbly romanticisms through a choice as simple as finding Mrs. Harris in Paris in the middle of a trash strike, so that even a walk along the Seine is accompanied by heaps of rubbish.
However, it’s largely about how the couture suggests a different kind of life for Ms. Harris, so the dresses she swoons over must be real. Beavan comes off as a champ, evoking classic Dior designs from the 1950s in a centerpiece sequence that finds Ms Harris unexpectedly attending the premiere of Dior’s new couture line. Fabian stretches the sequence by letting his camera lovingly caress each creation that appears in front of Ms. Harris, and pulling out the old trolley zoom for Ms. Harris to drift into a kind of trance at the sight of her favorite drawing. The counterpoint to the simpler look of Ms. Harris’ everyday duds – prints that sometimes seem to blend into her wallpaper, rendering her almost invisible – provide the punctuation of high fashion’s aspirational appeal.
The interesting thing about the history of Mrs. Harris goes to Paris is that it’s kind of a weird Cinderella story where the protagonist’s character arc tries not to see herself exclusively as the “fairy godmother” – as another character literally calls her at one point – but as someone who deserves his own chance to go for the ball. There’s something unique about emphasizing the value of deciding that you can care about what you want for yourself, not just about doing for others, and that making the choice to find yourself beautiful is worthy. ‘admiration. It’s much easier to make this kind of Cinderella story work when the fairy godmother behind the scenes is someone like Jenny Beavan, whose magical work doesn’t come from a wand, but from real, wonderful work. .