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The Beatles’ British invasion of the mid-’60s gets all the attention, but there was a sort of second British invasion that took place in the ’80s and early ’90s. This was a time when medium-sized British films were catnip to US art-house audiences. Of course, Merchant Ivory were the undisputed kings of this invasion, but there were countless other, less literary films like raise Rita, Shirley Valentineand The Full Monty. Among other things, these films, which often focused on a rowdy working-class underdog (or group of underdogs) beating the odds to win, introduced us Americans to a very specific sort of British mood. The films might have been unbearable if they hadn’t been leavened with a good dose of wit and humanism. And they differed from their US counterparts because the British have always allowed, well, person-looking people to populate their films. (You almost never see someone with a stomach or bad teeth or flabby forearms headlining an American film).

Movies like this have kind of gone out of fashion — though they still pop up from time to time (in a way, the Paddington films fall into that category) — but you want to see what your mother (or grandmother) was so obsessed with in her late 20sth century, you see Mrs. Harris goes to Paristhe most perfect example of cinematic British whimsy I have seen in well over two decades.

Mrs. Harris goes to Paris plays the wonderful Lesley Manville, who is neither pot-bellied nor flabby-armed. But she’s in her mid-60s, which already makes her a pretty unlikely subject for a fairy tale. (The Emily found in Paris on Netflix, for example, is in her twenties.)

Movie buffs will be particularly amused at the choice of Manville as the lead actress, as she stars in Brilliant The Phantom Thread, another film that delved into the sophisticated and sophisticated world of fashion houses. Tonally, of course, the two films couldn’t be more different – no one will ever accuse Paul Thomas Anderson of being whimsical – but it’s an irresistible crossover.

I have to say that the first thing that came to mind was the sparkle Mrs. Harris goes to Paris would break me When we meet Mrs. Harris, she’s so brave and upbeat and good-natured—and the film’s music so bubbly and engaging and cute—that I was afraid I might overdose on the cuteness of it all. But thanks to excellent acting, exceptional production design, and an increasingly compelling story, I largely succumbed to the film’s (admittedly aggressive) charm.

Mrs. Harris is a cleaning lady living in post-war London. She is known for always being honest, kind and upbeat.

“Today is my lucky day!” she rings to her best friend, cleaning colleague Vi (EllenThomas).

“Like every day,” Vi replies lovingly.

One day, while cleaning a fancy house with a spoiled mistress, Mrs. Harris spots a beautiful couture dress. It is lilac in color, with an elegant belt, butterfly appliques and sparkling sequins. She is fascinated.

(Here, I have to say, was one of my quirks with the film. It might have been nice if we’d seen Mrs. Harris flip through the pages of a fashion magazine beforehand, or pay special attention to her own budget wardrobe. Instead, it’s like she had a spontaneous fashion awakening when she saw this dress is Christian Dior.)

She suddenly becomes obsessed with coming to Paris and buying herself a Dior haute couture dress. There are setbacks along the way to this quest, but mild ones. As a reminder, the film is ruthlessly good-natured. Mrs. Harris losing at the dog track? Her villain friend Archie (Jason Isaacs) made a secret bet for her. Mrs. Harris has to spend the night at the train station? The men who sleep there are friendly and protective. The snooty studio manager (Isabel Huppert, amusing) won’t let you go to the fashion show? A handsome widowed Marquis (Lambert Wilson) rushes in and saves the day.

And, oh, what a fashion show this is! The film seems to have meticulously recreated the designs of the famed mid-century couture house, and they are stunning — chic, sculptural, elegant — and deserve more than the kind of adoration Mrs. Harris bestows on them. Once when she sees a certain dress she gasps. At another point, she slips into a kind of fugue state, similar to how she felt when she first discovered her mistress’s dress.

In Paris, she has a magical time, hanging out with the Marquis and serving as a matchmaker between a young, disillusioned model (Alba Baptista) and the handsome Dior financier (Emily in Paris‘ Lucas Bravo, who seems to have the role of ‘hot guy in Paris’ during lockdown) who loves her. She has also become the unofficial mascot of the House of Dior, loved by models and seamstresses alike.

I know, I know. If you’re allergic to something like that, it all sounds unbearable. But the film is very good at what it does – beautiful to look at and put together with evident affection and care by director Anthony Fabian and his crew. It has a lot to say, too — mostly about the uplifting power of beauty and the crazy ways society tends to find aging women “invisible.” Of course, Mrs. Harris refuses to be invisible – and we cheer her efforts to be seen. The film was a welcome throwback. Now it’s time to dig up my old VHS copy Enchanted April.

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