When a cleaning woman spots a Christian Dior gown in the utterly charming "Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris," she lifts it high and gazes at it as if she's looking into the eyes of a dashing waltz partner.
Mrs. Harris (Lesley Manville) is a working-class Londoner who wouldn't have many nice things in her life even if her long-lost husband had returned from fighting in World War II a decade earlier. But in that Dior moment, Manville's blissed-out expression shows us that, trapped in limbo since her husband disappeared, Mrs. Harris is ready to start living again.
Manville might be developing the narrowest specialty in movies, between this and her Oscar-nominated performance in "Phantom Thread": women who exist on the margins of, and are enraptured by, the world of 1950s couture. Even so, she's perfectly cast as calm, forthright Mrs. Harris. Manville has an elegant bearing, but she plays working-class folks in many Mike Leigh movies, a contrast that helps her pull off creating a character who's equally at home tidying her clients' overflowing ashtrays or chatting with Mr. Dior himself.
Based on the first in a series of comic novels by Paul Gallico, "Mrs. Harris" is a fable in which the title character is both fairy godmother and princess. By chance and pluck, she acquires the money to buy her own Dior, so she zips from London to Paris and back — unaware of the need for fittings and appointments — and works her tidying-up magic on a flighty client (Rose Williams, whose outsized performance is the movie's one false move), young lovers in France, a harried executive (played by Oscar nominee Isabelle Huppert) and even the cash-strapped House of Dior.
It's a riff on "Cinderella" and it resembles the even more charming Frances McDormand comedy "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day," but "Mrs. Harris" is more ambitious than most fairy tales because it ponders what happens after a princess gets what she thought she wished for. There's not much plot to spoil but there are nice surprises so it may be best to just note that it's not about the dress. Mrs. Harris discovers there are several things she has been denying herself and that she has made it too easy for others to think of her as "invisible."
There's some new-fashioned feminism and labor unrest but "Mrs. Harris" is the kind of pleasingly old-fashioned movie that could have come out in its late-'50s time period, starring Deborah Kerr or Jennifer Jones. There's a lush score, every grocery bag has a baguette and leeks poking out of the top, the Notre-Dame cathedral looks like it should rather than the current construction zone and the atmosphere is so romantic that it doesn't sound goofy when Mrs. Harris spends time with the female laborers whose work Dior exploits and says, enraptured, "It's not sewing. It's making moonlight."
The movie, too, feels moonlit — like a dreamy, magical escape.
'Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris'
***1/2 out of 4 stars
Rated: PG for suggestive material.
Where: Area theaters.