Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, review: Lesley Manville’s in ‘Mike Leigh mode’ in this pleasant comedy

Lesley Manville stars as widow Ada Harris in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris - Liam Daniel / © 2021 Ada Films Ltd - Harris Squared Kft
Lesley Manville stars as widow Ada Harris in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris - Liam Daniel / © 2021 Ada Films Ltd - Harris Squared Kft

Cinderella has come to filmmakers’ assistance time and again – just ask Mike Nichols, who knew he could rely on the story’s services when he agreed to make Working Girl. Here she is again, breaking a sweat and polishing up all the doorknobs to make Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris work as well as it does. This light, lacquered confection is adapted from Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel about Ada Harris, a kind-hearted London cleaning lady who’s bedazzled by the vision of a Christian Dior evening gown, and saves every penny to fly over to Paris and snag one.

Previously played by the likes of Angela Lansbury, the role certainly becomes Lesley Manville, operating in something akin to her Mike Leigh mode: there’s a lot of “oohing” and effervescent ingratiating. She’s almost exhaustingly “on”, but you can’t deny how brightly she shines. Helping the cause is the ever spry Jason Isaacs, as a chummy Irish bookie who’s got Ada’s back, whereas Anna Chancellor is all evasive hand-waving as a debt-ridden, upper-crust client.

Widowed in 1944, Ada hasn’t received official confirmation until 13 years later, following a lot of chirpy denial and best-foot-forward bustle. The one boon is her long-deferred pension, which goes some way to funding this fairytale sojourn right to the heart of haute couture. She pitches up at Dior’s door just when the new season’s unveiled, and attracts looks of horror from their regular customers.

Because every Cinders variation needs its wicked stepmother, a particularly frosted form of Isabelle Huppert guards the salon as Dior’s front of house manager, whose first, aghast glance at Ada’s brand of charwoman chic is a hoot. Before long, Ada has still managed to bed in among the atelier’s overworked staff, thanks to her talents for invisible mending as an after-hours seamstress.

Lesley Manville's Mrs Harris is bedazzled by a Christian Dior evening gown - David Lukazs / © 2021 Ada Films Ltd - Harris Squared Kft
Lesley Manville's Mrs Harris is bedazzled by a Christian Dior evening gown - David Lukazs / © 2021 Ada Films Ltd - Harris Squared Kft

The script, credited to director Anthony Fabian and three other writers, especially likes the idea of these “invisible women” propping up a fashion house’s financially unstable empire, and has plucked 1957 so it can have the Paris binmen going on strike – a light dusting of working-class history lest Gallico’s fanciful story feel tethered to nothing.

Our third-act developments – especially when a curvaceous actress borrows a Dior piece – stretch credulity some way beyond the point where the seams should pop. Somehow, to fuss meticulously about measuring Manville for half the film, only to spring this sort of daft cheat, makes the wafer-thin veneer of social realism feel even more like a scratch-and-sniff job.

It’s a thoroughly pleasant if flimsy film – a sleeper hit already in America’s sleepy arthouses – with a distinct perfume of nostalgia wafted towards us, say by the sight of Gitanes lit up on cross-channel flights. Like the workhorse she’s always been, Cinderella helps this latest spin get by, while also tempting it to lay back and idle along.

PG cert, 116 min. In cinemas now