by Geoffrey Churchman
Based on the 1958 novel by Paul Gallico, this has been filmed before, but gets what is a delightful treatment this time that encompasses some nice period (set in 1957) atmosphere of aspects of life in London and Paris among both the lower and upper strata of society — and in Paris you couldn’t get much higher than haute couture, which was then as it is now the fashion capital of the world. The only other contenders for that title are Milan and, to a lesser extent, New York.
Mrs Harris is a cleaning lady whose husband was an RAF pilot killed in 1944 and has to do what she does with some affluent clients to make ends meet. But she is a dreamer and an elegant if flamboyant dress made by Christian Dior in Paris that she comes upon inspires her ambition to have one like it. The problem is the cost — £500 which according to the Bank of England inflation calculator would be £9,336 now. But a £150 win on the Football Pools (a peculiarly British form of sports betting) makes her think she can achieve it. An ill advised greyhound race bet sees her lose £100 of it, but there is better news from other occurrences and she manages to receive enough to head across to the Ville de Lumière to buy a very expensive dress at Maison Dior.
The reception she gets there is a mixed one: a few of the managers and invitees at the fashion show she walks in on have the attitude nous ne voulons pas de hoi polloi — but others are sympathetic and she manages to get the dress she wants — and a bit of romance from a Marquis in addition.
Maison Dior are credited as being collaborators with the movie, so it’s possible the bad financial situation the company is shown as being in, with a need to cater for a broad market with other products is fact.
The bittersweet experience continues when Mrs Harris gets back to London.
Much of the movie’s scenes, other than iconic landmarks set in Paris were actually filmed in Budapest streets, but the impression nevertheless is that you are looking at Paris streets. The beautiful city isn’t quite so beautiful with the garbagemen en grève (on strike), but it’s still like a fairytale compared with dingy London.
The juxtaposition of the mundane and the haut monde throughout works well, and needless to say, those into fashion history (I’m not) and classic vehicles (I am) should be amply satisfied. Things may be a little too cute, co-incidental, pert (and torpid) at various times, but that is what makes it absorbing.
For a presentation of what life was like in different parts of both cities at the time, this is pretty good. Recommended.
Mrs Harris goes to Paris (115 minutes) is screening at the Shoreline.