PLight cinema – the rare kind of film that is neither meant to challenge nor surprise, but is just generally nice to look at – has to tread a dangerous path.
This mostly sparse genre, which includes the mild comedy “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is certainly one of them, tries to confirm; The goal here is to make the audience feel better. However, such efforts stand at a precipice; Try just a little too hard to please you, and you’ll stumble over a cliff into a sea of absurdity.
“Mrs. Harris,” a third adaptation of the novel by Paul Gallico, taps into that abyss; at every moment it threatens to become too sweet, too sweet, too preppy. Luckily, it has a truly delightful lead in Lesley Manville, a remarkably gifted one Actress who enchants the viewer – even if she works desperately to hold the narrative together.
The title character is an unhappy but carefree cleaning lady in 1950s London; Her husband had gone to war more than a decade ago and has not been heard from since. Harris’ belief in his survival is flimsy when the news finally arrives; His belongings were found among the recently discovered wreckage of an airplane lost in 1944.
Somehow, the confirmation of her husband’s death puts a dream in Mrs. Harris’ mind; She wants to own a Dior dress after seeing a stunning example at one of the houses she cleans. Practical strokes of luck and old-fashioned stinginess earn her enough money to afford the dress. She jets off to Paris, where her uncouth charm and refreshing seriousness please jaded Parisians generally (except for a fashionable bigwig, beautifully played by Isabelle Huppert, inserted into the story as a very polite foil).
The journey Harris takes through the City of Light rivals the journeys of Forrest Gump; She accidentally blends in with high society, accompanies a lonely Marquis to the Moulin Rouge and chats up a supermodel at a movie premiere. There are probably a bit too many scenes of Harris doling out working-class no-nonsense wisdom on stuffed shirts; The film’s final hour contains many of the same notes played repeatedly at the same volume.
Actually, everything is a bit too much. A breezy, fast comedy was required; Instead, director Anthony Fabian dwells on faces, views, and clothes so frequently that the film nearly hits the two-hour mark. “Ms. Harris” contains too much of a good thing and quite a bit of mediocre.
Luckily, Manville — a new Oscar nominee for “Phantom Thread” — is there to keep the film’s humor, panache, and dignity alive. Without her, it would surely have fallen off the cliff into ridiculousness; she keeps it marginal, if barely.
My rating: 6/10
“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is in theaters now.