How is that the British, way down now in the rankings of global movie production, have come up with a successful genre all of their own – the national treasure. Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren to be sure first came to prominence in the same year, 1969, with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Age of Consent respectively, but whereas Hollywood has turned its back on the ageing female contingent, the British film industry has wrapped its most famous stars in cotton wool and proceeded to give them roles they can take to the Oscar bank.
Mirren was in her early 60s when she romped home in The Queen (2006); you only have to say Downton Abbey and Smith, already two Oscars to the good, is regarded as screen royalty. And that’s before Judi Dench enters the equation, a few years older than Mirren when she nabbed the Oscar for Shakespeare in Love (1998). You can pretty much count on getting funding for any picture if you can rustle up any of this trio. Want to bring back the older crowd? Dangle these carrots!
Elevated into this category now is Lesley Manville, the 66-year-old star of the delightful Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. While largely escapist, there’s enough of a contemporary vibe, a Paris redolent of filth, the downtrodden going on strike, to provide an edge, and a narrative that continually punctures dreams any time fantasy looks like running away with itself. Set in 1950s London and Paris where the poor know their place, and are rigidly kept in it by the arrogant rich, but where aspiration can at any moment take flight.
Cleaner Mrs Harris, dreaming of buying a £500 dress – we’re talking the best part of £14,000 these days – scrimps and saves, and through a couple of more than fortuitous events, finds her way to the House of Dior where she is despised by haughty manager Claudine (Isabelle Huppert), adored by philosophic model Natasha (Alba Baptista) for having such aspirations, and manages to cast a spell, although not for the reasons expected, over rich widower the Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson).
There’s not much plot. She has to remain in Paris for a fortnight for fittings and whiles away the time helping along the romance between under-manager Andre (Lucas Bravo) and Natasha, assisted by their existentialist leanings, eventually overcoming hostility and putting everything to rights in the Dior empire. But you don’t need plot when you’ve got charm. The English notion of fair play initially comes a cropper when facing French egalitarianism out of whack, when the rich can jump the queue and basically make everyone jump to their tune. But when a character like Mrs Harris settles for second best you can be sure she’ll come up trumps. Whether it’s icing on the cake or to make a rubbish-strewn Paris more palatable, there’s a good ten minutes of oo-la-la devoted to parading the latest fashions.
And there’s not just a philosophical undertone – people not what they appear on the surface – but a feminist one, women holding the world together while men whistle. But by and large it’s joyous entertainment, a confection straight out of the Hollywood top drawer, a poor woman having her day in the sun through sheer strength of character.
Unless you’re British or a big fan of arthouse director Mike Leigh or noticed her Oscar nomination in the largely unnoticed The Phantom Thread (2017) Lesley Manville will probably have passed you by. She nabbed a cult following as the dumped-upon lead in comedy series Mum (2016-2019) and picked up a wider audience as Princess Margaret in The Crown, but mostly she’s known for a certain kind of acting, where she can change expression 20 times in a minute without ostensibly doing anything different. Just like her predecessors, Smith, Dench and Mirren.
You can’t take your eyes off her, which is quite feat when she’s up against French screen royalty (perhaps a “tresor national”) Isabelle Huppert (Elle, 2016). Alba Baptista (Warrior Nun series) could well be the breakout star here though Lucas Bravo definitely runs her close. I saw Bravo in Ticket to Paradise (2022) and the characters there and here could not be more different. Ellen Thomas (Golden Years, 2016), Lambert Wilson (Benedetta, 2021), Anna Chancellor (For Love or Money, 2019) and Jason Isaacs (Operation Mincemeat, 2021) have smaller roles.
Director Anthony Fabian (Skin, 2008) adds deeper issues to a movie that was crying out to be all surface. He co-wrote the screenplay with Carroll Cartwright (What Maisie Knew, 2012) based on the classic Paul Gallico novel.