'Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris' Belongs in the Pantheon of British Comfort Movies
Lesley Manville longs for a Dior gown in this new heart-warmer, which shares DNA with 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,' 'Calendar Girls,' and other charming gems.
Early in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, before Mrs. Harris goes to Paris, she opens a box belonging to a self-absorbed woman whose home she cleans. Inside is a sparkling baby-pink dress, the kind Mrs. Harris could never herself afford, in or out of Paris. She picks it up and hugs it to her chest, eyes aglow. The audience knows immediately that Mrs. Harris will somehow wind up in that dress, or one like it, by the movie's end. The title tells us this will probably happen in Paris. (Mrs. Haris lives in London.) Here, predictability is no handicap. Knowing the stakes, low as they may be, is part of the joy.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is what one might call a British-lady comfort movie. The genre hinges on some degree of bubbly ease, on tension that will be soothed with the acquisition of, say, a fancy gown or a best exotic marigold hotel (see: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). It often involves two or more adversaries finding common ground, possibly while running competing restaurants located 100 feet apart (see: The Hundred-Foot Journey). Judi Dench makes a full English breakfast out of these roles (see: Tea with Mussolini, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Philomena, Victoria & Abdul, not one but two Marigold Hotels).
Mrs. Harris is portrayed by the equally gifted Lesley Manville, best known for Phantom Thread, Harlots, and the films of Mike Leigh. She adopts the gleeful eyes of a romantic and the gait of someone easily wowed by sights that have long grown dull to anyone of higher social standing. Relentlessly optimistic, Mrs. Harris makes little fuss about her lot in life. Manville is careful not to make her too daffy, understanding that awe shouldn't equate naivete. This is someone who gets things done. She simply skips the cynicism that hobbles so much of the world. Manville's wisdom as a performer is to make that look easy. What if we all had her cheer?
Whatever the details, these movies are fundamentally good-natured. That's the primary stipulation. Take Calendar Girls, the 2003 charmer in which Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Penelope Wilton, and Celia Imrie—two of whom also appear in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—play unassuming senior citizens who raise money for leukemia research by posing in a nude calendar, their naughty bits hidden behind fruits or household appliances. The story's only true conflict is whether the women's newfound celebrity status might tear them apart. (It doesn't.)
Based on a novel by Paul Gallico, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris operates with a similar joie de vivre, even if, like most movies about aging, it has a melancholic undertow. Ada Harris is a 1950s widow who has received long-awaited confirmation of her husband's death in World War II. She earns her living as a housekeeper, never asking for much—just a few chuckles with her BFF (Ellen Thomas) and a respite from her intermittent loneliness. Meanwhile, haute couture is sweeping postwar European fashion. When she scores a stack of cash with the help of a roguish horse-racing bookie (Jason Isaacs), Mrs. Harris goes to—where else?—Paris to purchase a dress from the continent's glitziest designer, Christian Dior. Maybe the splendor will prompt a new chapter. Oh, how her husband would have loved to see her in such fine threads. But Mrs. Harris' lack of refinement clashes with the atelier's haughty supervisor, the decadently named Claudine Colbert (Isabelle Huppert), who would rather not sell a Dior original to someone she deems so inferior.
Instead of waging war, Mrs. Harris offers charm and airtight logic: "My money’s as good as anybody's." It's not quite as simple as that, of course. Mme. Colbert's snobbery isn't Mrs. Harris' only obstacle, though she has no trouble winning over a reluctant starlet (Alba Baptista) and a handsome Dior accountant (Lucas Bravo, a romance pro thanks to a certain Emily who also went to Paris) with a schoolboy crush on said startlet. By the end of the film, our protagonist will have started a minor labor movement, democratized fashion, and mellowed her foes. It's a fairy tale, contrived and delightful. Exactly the way you want it.
Movies like Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris are blissfully uninterested in most of popular culture's contemporary concerns. No superheroes, no apocalyptic threats, no dinosaurs or Demogorgons or physics-defying cars, no ripped-from-the-headlines scandal, no murder mystery to solve. These are earthbound sagas. They can feel like magical realism, but there is no literal magic, unless you count Maggie Smith's zingers. The genre's American counterparts—think Book Club, Poms, I'll See You in My Dreams, and Hope Springs—don't land with the same whimsy, too removed from the fairy-tale trappings that British filmmakers embrace. They could benefit from a spot of tea.
What isn't without that spot is 2018's Tea with the Dames, released abroad as Nothing Like a Dame. It's British-lady comfort food in documentary form. The English theater's four most revered actresses—Dench, Smith, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright—sit around a table at Plowright's countryside home, gossiping about their careers and ribbing one another. Quartet would be another apt title for Dames' tart slice of nirvana, but it was taken by a different Smith movie that more or less fits the genre, about a retirement home for quick-witted musicians. (Even men sneak in some giggles, namely Michael Gambon and Tom Courtenay, who could team up with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel's Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson for their own comfort food.) Smith's Quartet colleague Pauline Collins also headlined The Time of Their Lives, a 2017 road-trip comedy in which her character attempts to renew her faded screen career alongside co-star Joan Collins (no relation).
The only bummer about this genre? There's not more of it. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, recently released on Hulu, doesn't totally qualify, but it scratches a similar itch. Trading fancifulness for naturalism, Leo Grande features another dame, Emma Thompson, as a retired schoolteacher who has never achieved orgasm. She hires a hunky, tactful sex worker (Daryl McCormack) to remedy her erotic void. The movie occurs across four meetings in the same hotel room where Thompson's nervous Nancy steadily grows more comfortable with herself. Thompson captures the role's nuances in much the way that Dench did in 2013's fact-based Philomena. Despite the characters' vast differences, they share strained relationships to their pasts and a curiosity about aspects of the world they haven't embraced. By the end, they're more tranquil people.
That sums up an essential hallmark: The old-timers in these movies find reason to embrace life anew. In The Hundred-Foot Journey, Mirren's Michelin-starred proprietor abandons her airs after falling for her competitor (Om Puri). The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel retirees learn that good scenery is in the eye of the beholder. Despite seeking out a dress worth 500 quid, Mrs. Harris isn't craving materialism; she just wants something beautiful, a windfall to lift her morale. Her spiritual gains become more valuable than anything Dior could sell her. Like each of these films, the stakes are low and the ecstasy is high.