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‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’ is a feel-good fashion fairy tale

Lesley Manville stars in a gossamer-thin story about mid-century couture that may be just what the world needs now

Lesley Manville in “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.” (Liam Daniel/Focus Features)
(2.5 stars)

The fashion show within a movie has been a staple of cinematic escapism since the days of “The Women” and “How to Marry a Millionaire,” right through “Sex in the City”; its vicarious pleasures never cease.

That’s one takeaway from “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” a warmhearted confection, based on Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel, that contains a short but stunning glimpse of mid-century Christian Dior designs, presented in a soignée showcase in the maestro’s Paris atelier. There, a Battersea house cleaner named Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) feasts her eyes on a collection of beautifully constructed gowns and day dresses — or “frocks,” as Mrs. Harris cheerfully calls them. How she came to arrive at this particular moment is part of the fun of “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” a Cinderella tale of postwar grit and stiff-upper-lip optimism that becomes ever more fanciful as its sturdy, unfailingly kind heroine overcomes the obstacles in her path.

Directed by Anthony Fabian from a screenplay co-written with Carroll Cartwright, Keith Thompson and Olivia Hetreed, “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” chronicles how, while cleaning for a particularly snooty client (Anna Chancellor at her most deliciously imperious), Mrs. Harris happens upon a Dior dress that becomes something of a holy grail. By dint of prudence and a few passes at the dog races, Mrs. Harris just might raise the dosh for a junket across the Channel and a shopping spree. In a real fairy tale, her tea kettle would turn into a carriage and those dogs would become plumed white horses. Here, it’s Mrs. Harris’s innate decency, with her loyalty, honesty and humaneness, that is the source of her magic.

At nearly two hours, “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” crams a lot of thematic material into its gossamer-thin narrative. In between luscious shots of gorgeous clothes (the Dior pieces have been lovingly re-created by Jenny Beavan, the genius behind “Cruella” last year) are vignettes involving class solidarity, budding young love, potentially budding older love and the cruelties of middle age. (“That’s what we are, Vi,” Mrs. Harris says to her best friend, played by Ellen Thomas. “Invisible women.”) Fabian swirls the story points together with waltzing, sprightly grace, but over time the characterizations feel facile and patronizing, whether it’s Isabelle Huppert overplaying the cat-faced meanie who runs Dior’s front of house or Jason Isaacs’s dreamily sweet London bookie.

Hovering over “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is a character from another movie entirely: Cyril, the martinet-like sister Manville played in 2017’s fashion-centric melodrama “Phantom Thread.” In that performance, the actress seemed to channel her inner Mrs. Danvers to create a chilly woman of untold depths. Here, she’s in cozy mode, calling people “ducks” and “pet” in a turn reminiscent of Geraldine McEwan in a Miss Marple mystery.

This isn’t a criticism: Manville in any incarnation is one of the great pleasures of screen storytelling, especially now. And even at its most patronizing, “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” provides a generous, gentle stage for her most endearing qualities to shine through. There are moments when “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” resembles the cinematic equivalent of nursery food: over-egged but soothing, and perhaps a much-needed respite from a world in danger of spinning off its axis.

PG. At area theaters. Contains suggestive material, strong language and smoking. 115 minutes.

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