In 1958, Paul Gallico’s novel “Flowers for Mrs. Harris” was published in the United States under the title “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris.” It was the first of four novels about his most enduring character, an English cleaning lady named Ada Harris. Anthony Fabian’s big-screen adaptation, released 30 years after Angela Lansbury assumed the role in a television movie, puts the H back in “Harris” and adds a happier ending than the bittersweet one Gallico envisioned. The general plot remains unchanged; this is a sweet, gentle fable about working-class dreams that also serves as a commercial for the House of Dior, the fashion juggernaut started in 1946 by Christian Dior. Quite simply, it’s the tale of one woman’s quest to possess a 500-quid dress that would cost thousands today.
Christian Dior (Philippe Bertin) appears briefly, but his business is primarily represented by a haughty, mean, and very French Isabelle Huppert. As Claudine Colbert, Huppert relishes the comedic role of an antagonistic gatekeeper whose main function is to keep perceived riffraff like Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) out of houses of haute couture. Charwomen don’t wear dresses built to their specifications! Dior is for beauties like Natasha (Alba Baptista), the fashion model who would rather be reading Jean-Paul Sartre than accompanying the rich and famous on red carpets as the public face of the company.
In addition to tormenting Mrs. Harris, Colbert terrifies Dior employee André (Lucas Bravo), who nurses a secret crush on Natasha. There’s an even meaner French regular customer, Madame Avallon (Guilaine Londez), who makes life miserable for Colbert, and the Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson), who attends the Dior fashion shows by himself. The protagonist will predictably factor into all of their lives, but first, Mrs. Harris has to get to Paris.
It’s 1957, 13 years after the British government sent her a package regarding the World War II fate of her husband. Mrs. H hasn’t opened it yet; she speaks with her husband as if he were still alive, and as long as that box remains sealed, there’s still hope that he is. When not cleaning the houses of ungrateful people like wannabe actress Pamela Penrose (Rose Williams) and the consistently-late-with-payment Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor), Mrs. H spends her time hanging out with best buddy Vi (Ellen Thomas). The two women play the number every day in the hopes of making easy money. The numbers racket is run by Archie (Jason Isaacs), a bookie with a heart of gold who also works at the dog track.
It’s at Lady Dant’s that Mrs. Harris gets her first taste of haute couture. When she sees the Dior in Dant’s closet, Fabian’s camera does the famous double dolly shot pioneered by Melvin van Peebles that’s become Spike Lee’s signature move. He’ll repeat it twice more, each time earning the visual effect of the audience literally falling in love with an outfit. (The re-creations by costume design legend Jenny Beavan are stunning to behold.) After several ups and downs, including learning the fate of her husband, Mrs. Harris has enough money to pursue her dream.
It’s a little too on-the-nose that a cleaning lady would arrive in a Paris that’s overflowing with garbage due to a sanitation strike. It’s even more on-the-nose that the dress Mrs. H has her eye on is called “Temptation.” Just go with it, as the rewards reaped by watching this film are well worth enduring any blatant symbolism. Like Gallico’s later novel, “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris” is about the journey, not the destination. Manville is magnificent as the flip side of Cyril, her stern, fashion expert “Phantom Thread” character, and Isaacs is equally good as the big lug of a protector who may also harbor a secret crush.
Though it has a few things to say about class — and how even the most downtrodden are entitled to hopes, dreams, passions, and solidarity — “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” never devolves into a preachy treatise. Instead, it’s a soothing tonic, a nice little escape from the troubles of the world. Sure, its plot hinges on a materialistic desire, but capitalism has seldom felt this comforting.
MRS. HARRIS GOES TO PARIS
Directed by Anthony Fabian. Written by Fabian, Carroll Cartwright, Keith Thompson, and Olivia Hetreed. Based on the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Lesley Manville, Isabelle Huppert, Jason Isaacs, Ellen Thomas, Lucas Bravo, Alba Baptista, Rose Williams. At AMC Boston Common 19, suburbs. 115 minutes. PG (a few naughty British phrases and an extraneous letter H).