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Dreaming of Dior, a charwoman follows her bliss in 'Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris'

"You have the proportions of a model," the fitter tells cleaning lady Ada Harris (Lesley Manville). Her reply: "Model railway, more like."
Dávid Lukács / Focus Features
"You have the proportions of a model," the fitter tells cleaning lady Ada Harris (Lesley Manville). Her reply: "Model railway, more like."

Last week, while Chris Hemsworth's Thor was smashing up eternity, I retreated to a quieter cineplex auditorium to soak up the period pleasures of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.

The year is 1957 in a bustling, overcast London, where cleaning lady Ada Harris (Lesley Manville, ever chipper and commonsensical) is all about brightening everyone else's day, even as folks barely notice her.

She makes their apartments sparkle, lifts their spirits, and heads for the Legion hall with her pal Vi (Ellen Thomas), trying her best not to wonder why her beloved husband Eddie never returned from World War II. Deep inside, Ada knows he's not coming back, but for almost eight years she's allowed herself to dream of little else.

Until one day, in the wardrobe of a client, she spies a Christian Dior gown, and acquires a new dream. The client, who is always late paying Ada, confides that the gown cost 500 pounds, and though Ada is shocked (that would be roughly $15,000 today), she's also thrilled at a beauty in fabric and workmanship she's never experienced before.

A humble working-class woman dares to dream in <em>Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.</em>
/ Dávid Lukács / Focus Features
/
Dávid Lukács / Focus Features
A humble working-class woman dares to dream in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.

A "frock" suddenly within reach

When the war department belatedly gets in touch to say it's found her husband's crashed plane in Poland and owes her years of war widow's pension, Ada figures Eddie's sent her a message.

So, expecting she can simply pick up a "frock" as she might at Woolworth's, she heads off to Paris. She arrives at the House of Dior on the day its 10th-anniversary collection is being shown to clients, unaware she needs to be a client and have an invitation.

The salon's brusque gatekeeper, Madame Colbert (Isabelle Huppert, all presumptuous formality) is in the process of turning Ada away, when along comes a wealthy widower (Lambert Wilson, as dapper as any Prince Charming), who has a spare ticket and invites her to join him as his guest.

A storybook tale

"Fairy tales can come true," as a popular song of that era had it, "if you're young at heart," and Ada is certainly that. She's also down-to-earth enough to win over the behind-the-scenes folks who make the Dior dresses.

Ada befriends a young model (Alba Baptista) with a tiny act of kindness, even as her commonsensical advice strikes chords with a Dior accountant (Lucas Bravo) who is sweet on the model. And if Huppert's Madame Colbert can't be won over by Ada's working-class charm, well, what's a fairy tale without a witch.

In Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson's very different film centered on haute couture, it was Manville who played a character of this witchy stripe – the tightly wound, elitist sister to Daniel Day Lewis' designer — so it's neat symmetry that she should be the one to poke holes here in the Dior salon's fabric of class prejudice.

Director Anthony Fabian surrounds his star with period Christian Dior gowns re-created by Cruella designer Jenny Beavan. He sends Ada swanning through fittings, then to a white-on-white sewing room where a splash of scarlet ribbon all but sets the frame vibrating. Also, out into the streets of a 1957 Paris that is — appropriately, considering Mrs. Harris' impulse to tidy things up — experiencing a citywide garbage strike.

Count on Ada in a pinch. She'll help clean up labor issues, a budding romance, even financial troubles at the salon itself, all on the way to a storybook conclusion that seems to take pride in being tied up neatly, with nary a missed stitch, and with a lovely bow.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.