Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris – An ordinary charwoman dreams of owning a couture Dior gown

Although he’d initially been brought on as a director for hire, director Anthony Fabian eventually acquired the rights to produce the adaptation himself and began working on an entirely new screenplay with Carroll Cartwright, while prolific film and television writer Keith Thompson and A Girl with a Pearl Earring writer Olivia Hetreed gave the script a final polish.

Paul Gallico’s enchanting 1958 novel Mrs. ’Arris Goes to Paris sends hardworking English charwoman Ada Harris on the adventure of a lifetime as she seeks to acquire a Christian Dior gown. The feel-good fable, the first of four books about the resourceful heroine, has brought joy to countless readers throughout the decades. It was even adapted for television in 1992 with the legendary Angela Lansbury in the starring role as the bright-eyed maid from Battersea.     

Fabian was well acquainted not only with the delightful Mrs. Harris but also with Gallico’s larger body of work—the late author had been a favourite of the writer-director-producer. So, when John Brown, the manager of Gallico’s estate, approached Fabian about bringing the novel to the big screen, he was immediately intrigued.

Fabian’s feature film work up until that point had been largely focused on family dramas based on true stories, yet he felt a special affinity for the material. Having lived in Paris as a boy and having attended boarding school in England, he could appreciate both cultures at the heart of the story. “I understood these two worlds extremely well, London and Paris,” Fabian says. “I felt it was a story that I could tell in a very authentic and accurate way.”

Lambert Wilson stars as Marquis de Chassange, Lesley Manville as Mrs. Harris, Guilaine Londez as Madame Avallon, Dorottya Ilosvai as Mathilde Avallon and Alba Baptista as Natash in director Tony Fabian’s MRS.HARRIS GOES TO PARIS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Dávid Lukács / © 2021 Ada Films Ltd – Harris Squared Kft

Throughout the adaptation process, Fabian wanted to make absolutely clear why obtaining a beautiful haute couture artefact becomes such an obsession for Mrs. Harris.

“The book gives you the bones of the story, but not the flesh,” he says. “It doesn’t really explain why Mrs. Harris wants this dress, other than in the most frivolous and superficial terms—it had to be more profound. Ultimately, I wanted to suggest that Ada Harris’ heart is healed by going on this journey. She is a widow who has put her heart on ice, and this dress is an inanimate object that she can love without betraying her husband. Somehow, the dress becomes a catalyst for opening her heart and allowing her to love again.”

To produce, Fabian turned to his friend Guillaume Benski (A Long Way from Home, The Unattainable Story). “My editorial line is to make films that can touch audiences around the world,” Benski says. “I want stories that can travel across borders, and I think that is exactly what this project offers. It was a beautiful story and script, universal and very touching.”  

Benski then spoke to London-based producer Xavier Marchand (Eye in the Sky, Suite Français) to gauge his interest in joining the film’s creative team. “I thought it was terrific,” Marchand says of the screenplay. “And I thought it had the potential to reach a very wide audience. It was clear that Tony was very much in love with the book—he lived and breathed that material.”

As the project got underway in earnest, the filmmakers realized that they would need to forge a working relationship with Dior, given the prominence the storied fashion house holds in the narrative. (Interestingly, Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris is the first narrative feature to focus on House of Dior at the height of its mid-20th century glory.) “The film is about Dior,” Benski says. “Dior is in every scene. It’s part of the film itself. Even if we don’t see Christian Dior a lot, it’s really about the House of Dior and what the brand represents.”

Fabian and his fellow producers reached out to the iconic fashion label and found receptive partners who offered their full cooperation and support; Worldwide Communications Director of Christian Dior Couture Olivier Bialobos proved to be an invaluable ally. “For them, the project made sense,” Benski says. “It resonated with the values they have, with the beauty and the luxury of House of Dior.”

Additionally, the filmmakers visited the exhibition “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” which ran from Feb. 2, 2019-Sept. 1, 2019 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and emphasized the designer’s ties to the United Kingdom. The show featured more than 500 objects, including over 200 rare haute couture garments showcased alongside photographs, illustrations, perfumes, and accessories. Gallico’s novel was also included.

“The book was in one of the first windows in the exhibition,” Marchand says. “It was intriguing to realize how much it was part of the Dior story and the DNA of Dior.”

“Mrs. Harris is a very authentic character, and part of what makes her appealing to everybody around her is that she’s genuinely herself,” explains filmmaker Fabian. “She’s not putting on any mask—she unmasks all the people around her, all the other characters. She helps them become their true selves.” To find an actress who could successfully embody her warmth and charm, Fabian turned to Oscar® nominee Lesley Manville, the veteran performer known for her long-running collaborations with filmmaker Mike Leigh in addition to her acclaimed work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread.

Manville was well acquainted with both English life in the 1950s, the period in which the film is set, and the world of fashion from that time, having researched both for Phantom Thread. The actress found the role to be an intriguing opportunity, a chance to flex her acting muscles in a slightly different way, and she agreed to star and to executive produce.

“I’m known for doing quite complicated roles on stage and in film,” Manville says. “I thought it would be nice to do something where I’ve still got to create a fully rounded, believable person, but it’s got a lighter brush stroke to it. Ada has a real fighting spirit, but at the same time is very unselfish, generous and warm. Women in their 50s in that period were locked into a trajectory of what their life was going to be, but Ada rejects that. She’s spirited. She’s joyous, she’s humorous. She’s honest and fair. She’s very game. She’s open to opportunity and chance and serendipity—and she’s open to the idea of love.”

The Irish rogue named Archie, is a bookie who maintains a pleasantly flirtatious yet perfectly respectful friendship with the ladies.

The part went to Jason Isaacs, famed for his work in such films as The End of the Affair, The Death of Stalin, and for playing villain Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise. “It was unlike anything else I was reading,” Isaacs says of the screenplay. “It’s incredibly sweet and optimistic, without being simplistic, celebrating this underdog, Mrs. Harris, in a way that wasn’t patronizing. It’s also an incredibly modern and nuanced story of commerce and capitalism and society yet it’s got a period, fairy story sheen to it. It continues to surprise you.”

When it came to casting, authenticity was a priority for writer-director-producer Fabian, who felt strongly that the role of Madame Colbert should go to a French actress—Academy Award®-nominee Isabelle Huppert had been his first choice for the character. Fortuitously, the veteran French thespian agreed to take on the role. “Isabelle brought a multi-dimensional aspect to the character—she’s made her rather kooky and very funny, not just cold and forbidding,” Fabian says. “Madame Colbert, on the surface, could be seen as the main antagonist, very unpleasant, but her story arc also ends with us feeling truly moved by her and her circumstances. Only an actor of the caliber of Isabelle Huppert could play those complexities.

(l-ctr.) Roxane Duran stars as Marguerite, Bertrand Poncet as Monsieur Carré and Lesley Manville as Mrs. Harris in director Tony Fabian’s MRS.HARRIS GOES TO PARIS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Dávid Lukács / © 2021 Ada Films Ltd – Harris Squared Kft

“Part of what makes it really work is that she is truly French,” Fabian continues. “The film works on the opposition between Ada’s world and what she finds in France. By casting a French actress, somebody of the staggering quality of Isabelle Huppert, then you really have the contrast that’s so important for the story.”

Huppert felt that the screenplay for the film was very funny and at the same time, it had substance. “The friendship that develops between Mrs. Harris and Madame Colbert is both deep and beautiful,” Huppert says. “Madame Colbert understands who Ada is because they have the same sense of fight, the same sense of justice. So while the script has a lot of heart, there is depth too, which makes it emotional, interesting and, in a good sense, a little political.”

In terms of tone, Fabian had always conceived of the film as though it were a musical without the musical numbers—meaning he wanted the scenes to move with a certain effortless rhythm and pacing.

“It is magical realism,” Fabian says. “The film is grounded in reality, but it’s also a fairytale for grown-ups, so it has a kind of heightened reality. If you go too far into magic, you lose the credibility of the film—if you go too far the other way, you lose the spark.”

“It’s very much a film about contrasts, and it’s a film about a fish out of water, somebody who’s coming into a whole new universe,” Fabian says. “It’s almost like Mrs. Harris is landing on another planet as far as London and Paris are concerned. They were much more different as cities then than they are now.”

ANTHONY FABIAN (Writer, director, producer) is an award-winning director of feature films and documentaries. Born in San Francisco, brought up in Mexico City, Paris, and London, he is a graduate of UCLA’s Film & Television School and has been based in London since 1987. His most recent feature film, shot in Budapest, London and Paris, is an adaptation of Paul Gallico’s much-loved novella MRS. HARRIS GOES TO PARIS starring Lesley Manville, Isabelle Huppert, Lambert Wilson, Jason Isaacs, Anna Chancellor, Rose Williams, Alba Baptista and Lucas Bravo.

Fabian’s first feature, Skin, was based on a South African true story and made by the company he founded in 1993, Elysian Films, co-produced with Margaret Matheson (Bard Entertainments) and Genevieve Hofmeyr (Moonlighting Films). It stars Sophie Okonedo, Sam Neill and Alice Krige and was an Audience Award Finalist at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008. The film went on to win 22 international awards. Legendary American critic Roger Ebert called it “One of the best films of the year.” An evergreen movie, Skin was re-released on various platforms in May 2019.

His second theatrical feature, Louder Than Words, stars David Duchovny, Hope Davis and Timothy Hutton and was released in August 2014. Shot in Connecticut (during Hurricane Sandy), the film is based on a true story about a family who turn a tragic loss into a force for good. Rex Reed in the New York Observer described it as: “A feel-good film with an infectious sense of inspiration… directed with flair and sensitivity by Anthony Fabian.”

In 2019, he wrote, directed and produced a feature-documentary called Good Hope, which tells the story of post-Apartheid South Africa through the eyes of a new generation of movers and shakers engaged in changing the (largely negative) narrative about their country.

In 2011, Fabian shot an eight-part documentary series for Sky Arts HD called British Legends of Stage and Screen, starring Sir Derek Jacobi, Claire Bloom, Sir Christopher Lee, Dame Diana Rigg, Michael York, Glenda Jackson, Sir Michael Gambon and Sir Ian McKellen. The series received rave reviews, has been on air since 2012 and was released on DVD later that year.

His first documentary, Township Opera, (2001) features emerging talent from South Africa. It was the first program to be transmitted solo on BBC 4 and was shortlisted for a One World Media Award. His second hour-long documentary for BBC 4, Harmony in Hanoi, is a fresh look at contemporary Vietnam through the eyes of its musicians. It premiered at BAFTA and was broadcast in March 2003.

In the summer of 2004, Fabian produced and directed a documentary, While the Music Lasts, about Batignano, a quirky festival in southern Tuscany that has launched the careers of some of the most successful British artists working in opera today. He also made a documentary for Majestic Media and Sky Television called Embracing the Tiger charting the history, philosophy, practice and popularity of Tai Chi.

Fabian’s film career has led to work as Music Supervisor on several feature films, including Restoration, Goldeneye, Schubert and Hilary and Jackie. His filmography includes profiles of performers Luciano Pavarotti, Cecilia Bartoli, Joshua Bell, Angela Gheorghiu, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Renée Fleming, Christophe Rousset, Olli Mustonen, Richard Egarr and composer John Tavener.

He also made a series of promotional films for VisitBritain, the UK government’s Tourist Board, starring Dev Patel, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Luke Evans, Matt Smith, Twiggy, Boris Becker, Lennox Lewis, Colin Montgomery and Jamie Oliver. His short film, Freeze-Frame, stars Freddie Fox and Chinese actress Tuan Yuan, was released in December 2014 and has been viewed by more than 10 million people worldwide.

Fabian’s current projects include a new television series called Debs adapted from Fiona MacCarthy’s best-selling social history; Last Curtsey, co-created with the actress/writer, Victoria Tennant;and Margot & Rudi, a feature film with a script by MRS HARRIS GOES TO PARIS co-writer Olivia Hetreed, which dramatises the unconventional love story between Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, one of the most iconic artistic partnerships of the 20th century.

CARROLL CARTWRIGHT (Screenwriter) wrote scripts for the films What Maisie Knew and Where the Money Is. He is currently working on another Henry James adaptation and an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin.

OLIVIA HETREED (Screenwriter) is the award-winning screenwriter of Girl with a Pearl Earring and Wuthering Heights. Recent international films include the forthcoming MRS. HARRIS GOES TO PARIS starring Lesley Manville and Isabelle Huppert; Bosnia’s first animated feature, Birds Like Us, with the voices of Alicia Vikander and Jeremy Irons;and Finding Altamira, starring Antonio Banderas. Her TV work includes Canterbury Tales: The Man of Law’s Tale, The Treasure Seekers and The Roman Mysteries.

Hetreed is a very experienced international mentor of new writing talent and the former President of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, the union that represents more than 2,000 professional writersin the UK, where she led campaigns to deal with bullying and harassment, gender equality and greater visibility for screenwriters. Previously, she was a film editor, working on many dramas and documentaries.

KEITH THOMPSON (Screenwriter) is a co-writer on the feature film adaptation of Paul Gallico’s classic novel MRS. HARRIS GOES TO PARIS, directed by Anthony Fabian and starring Lesley Manville and Isabelle Huppert. Previously, Thompson co-wrote The Sapphires, based on the acclaimed musical by Tony Briggs, starring Chris O’Dowd and directed by Wayne Blair. The picture was an official selection for the Cannes Film Festival 2012, earning rave reviews and a 10-minute standing ovation. It also won 11 Australian Academy Awards, including Best Film and Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as the Australian Writers’ Guild Awards (AWGIE) for Most Outstanding Australian Script of the Year and Best Feature Adaptation.

Thompson’s first feature, the charming coming-of-age comedy-drama Clubland, was also showered with AWGIEs and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007. On the TV side, Thompson is lead writer on the comedy-drama Doctor Doctor (aka The Heart Guy) for the Nine Network in Australia. His TV feature biopics of Paul Hogan and Olivia Newton-John for Fremantle were broadcast on the 7 Network. His previous TV credits include the crime series Small Claims for Goalpost/Network 10 in Australia and the children’s series Lockie Leonard, which was broadcast on CBBC in the UK. He has been Head of Writing at the Australian national Film & Television School (AFTRS) and script editor on more than 30 Australian feature films.