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Mrs. Harris Goes to the Movies

Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel “Mrs. ’Arris Goes to Paris” concerns an aging British charwoman who is suddenly possessed by the dream of owning a Dior gown — one that would cost her practically an entire year’s salary.

Opening at the height of this summer’s boffo box-office season, the new film adaptation — “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” — holds a well-deserved 97% audience approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Its four-person writing team has faithfully adapted Gallico’s original, despite major changes — and they managed to improve his ending!

Chief among the film’s merits is the enchanting Lesley Manville, a rock-solid actress who remains lesser known despite a wide-ranging resume that includes “Phantom Thread,” “Topsy-Turvy,” and “Maleficent.” I was especially impressed by her tender work in the 2020 cancer-drama “Ordinary Love” (opposite Liam Neeson) and then, shortly thereafter, her vicious clan-matriarch in the galvanizing neo-Western “Let Him Go.”

In Manville’s hands, Ada Harris’ spellbound reaction upon first beholding the dress is wondrous and compelling; it’s her one true dream after a hard but happy life dusting and scrubbing — while also hoping for news of her beloved husband, who disappeared years ago on a flying mission during World War II.

When various circumstances combine with Ada’s scrimping and saving to make both the trip and the garment possible, she flies off to Paris, having no hesitation about charging headfirst into the lofty world of French fashion, privilege, money, and snobbishness. There, assisted by her optimistic common sense and down-to-earth outlook, she manages to change the lives of nearly all the characters — including herself.

All this Gallico material is very nicely covered in the film, though with a more contemporary slant. One change does feel a bit too modern: when Ada gets offended by a gentleman’s confession that he was initially drawn to her because she reminded him of a woman who was kind and comforting in his youth. Perhaps nowadays, it’s considered taboo to compliment a lady for being servant-like and motherly, but Ada’s umbrage sure feels out of place in this movie’s time period.

On the upside, the writing quartet has added an extremely likable character named Archie, played to perfection by Jason Isaacs. What’s more, they took Gallico’s ending — which is satisfying though slightly downbeat — and made it happier by weaving in a quiet plot strand that is easy to overlook; so it also comes across as a surprise.

The movie’s other strength is its lovely 1950s production design, with nostalgic cars, street scenes, and costumes beautifully filmed by cinematographer Felix Wiedermann — and undergirded by some grand old music from that era.

A film about dreams, hard work, and the emptiness of inherited wealth, “Mrs. Harris” feels like a loving throwback to a kinder, quieter, simpler time. Indeed, in a season of superheroes and sky-high action, this gem’s release feels a bit like the modest Mrs. Harris slipping in among Parisian high society.

Here’s hoping the film makes as big a splash as she did.