Stories of holy fools are tricky to tell.

Take Forrest Gump, for example. He waltzes through his broken world spouting platitudes, proposing that complex conundrums can be resolved with catchy quips and simplistic sincerity, and we are meant to conclude that he was some kind of genius who saw the Truth better than anyone else. Why can’t we all be more like Forrest? As a result, the film seems too sentimental, made of too much wishful thinking.

By contrast, Parry of Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King and Johannes of Carl Dreyer’s Ordet are clearly suffering from mental illness brought on by trauma. They are not well. And yet, in their not-wellness, they see some things more clearly than others, and we can find a silver lining in their troubled state: In their blindness to some things, they have become sharper in others. These films feel more truthful. They don’t insult us by insisting that complicated things are really quite simple.

Anthony Fabian’s new film Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is about a simple woman who brings her smiling simplicity, her basic human decency, and her un-cynical perspectives from the dusty wardrobes of London apartments to the high-fashion world of Paris. And everywhere she goes, she comforts the afflicted and she afflicts the comfortable (or, at least, the seemingly comfortable). Like magic, the world begins correcting itself all around her.

Mrs. Harris gives Leslie Manville what may be the most innocent and simple-minded character she has played. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

This story, based on a novel called Mrs. ‘arris Goes to Paris, has been filmed before, including a TV movie that starred Angela Lansbury, Diana Rigg, and Omar Sharif! I don’t have any experience with the book or the earlier adaptations, and this film isn’t inspiring me to invest my time in them — so I’ll leave it to other writers to consider how this compares to previous manifestations.

The story told here follows Mrs. Harris (Leslie Manville), a war widow who works as a cleaning woman in 1950s London. The excellence in her work makes her seem irreplaceable to her clients, which include the dignified Giles (Christian McKay) and the haughty Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor). Nevertheless, she is not entirely satisfied with her life. When she discovers an extravagant dress with a Christian Dior label, its beauty takes up residence in her imagination so powerfully that when she stumbles into some good fortune she determines to make her way to Paris to buy one of those fancy dresses for herself.

Though Christian Dior’s early business practices are critiqued, the film still comes across as worshipful of their work. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

The plan strikes her friends, including the loyal Vi (Ellen Thomas in the clearest example of tokenism I’ve seen in a movie in a while) and the charming Archie (Jason Isaacs), as audacious. But Mrs. Harris is done with living cautiously. She can’t see any reason why she cannot waltz into Paris and claim such a classy commodity for herself. What she cannot imagine is that she will soon make as powerful an impression on the workers at Christian Dior as their artistry has made upon her. And, like the famous Mr. Smith who goes to Washington and comforts the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable, her moral character will spark a revolution.

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is somehow scoring 95% “fresh” with critics on Rotten Tomatoes even though Fabian’s last film earned only 13% — and yet, reviews are using a lot of the same words to describe both films: “Hallmarky” and “saccharine,” for example. I’m a bit baffled by the positive response. It’s such broad-stroke entertainment, so eager to please, so well-meaning, that Paddington Bear could have a supporting role and audiences might not even blink.

As a Christian Dior model, Alba Baptista seems to be auditioning for many future romantic dramas. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

But Paddington is meant for children. I don’t mean that as a criticism — the film adaptations (expansions, really) of the classic children’s stories have set such stunningly high standards in writing, acting, and all aspects of design that they’re delighting children and adults alike and bringing all of them back for multiple viewings. They’re excellent films that fulfill the highest potential of their genre.

This? I’m not sure who the intended audience for this is. It’s as much of a well-meaning fantasy as Paddington, but it’s rarely more than mildly amusing, and it’s clearly not crafted for kids. If this had been released on Mother’s Day, it would have been the perfect confection for adults to take their mother to… if their mother’s taste in entertainment was such that an episode of PBS’s Poirot would be too “grim and gritty” for her.

Lambert Wilson shows up as if he might sweep Mrs. Harris off her feet — one of many turns that might incline us to believe we’ll find it’s all been “just a dream.” [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

I went to see this because I love Leslie Manville. Her turns in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread and Mike Leigh’s Another Year are pure gold. She’s great. She could replace Nicole Kidman in the AMC Theaters promo, read that same script, and convince me that she means it.

What’s more – I love a good movie about an innocent character with good intentions… so long as the movie doesn’t glorify ignorance and lie about the complexity of the world’s problems. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris has plenty of heart, but lacks the courage of its convictions. It doesn’t have the guts to honestly represent any kind of problem, or to develop human characters with foibles that are any more than mildly and momentarily aggravating. It’s like Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky if it had been directed by Ron Howard at his sappiest. By comparison, Spielberg’s lovely The BFG — another film that dares to be childlike with adults in mind — seems dark, dangerous, and downright subversive. This movie practically dares you to scoff at it; it feels like a judge is watching you watch the movie, poised to find you guilty of cynicism if you flinch.

A Paris that only exists in postcard photography and feeble fantasies provides the picturesque setting for much of the film. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

And just as Mrs. Harris, making notes about her savings, writes in huge letters and underlines them, so every moment in this movie is played like a major chord, and loudly, as if the filmmakers are straining to set some kind of Olympic record for sincerity. Minor chords register only as mild, fleeting variations in the tone — brief misunderstandings, the slightest bit of complication, the merest obstacle for Mrs. Harris to overcome — so that we can have a sense that a narrative is, in fact, progressing.

Another challenge to the viewer is the version of Paris on display here. If you saw Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, you saw a young woman suckered into a nostalgic vision of Paris, and then she paid the price by discovering that if you scratched those fantasies you’d expose horrific corruption festering under the skin. This movie insists on the idealistic fantasy, acknowledging real problems only as troubles that can be overcome as easily a puffing seeds off a dandelion. There’s not a spot in this film’s Paris that hasn’t been polished to avoid offense. Come to think of it, it’s like a Paris version of that pop-up book of London that figures largely in Paddington 2. This tourist’s fantasy of the city so resolutely ignores — denies — any significant flaws, injustices, or dark sides that you’ll wait for Mrs. Harris to wake up and learn it’s all been a dream.

So — and brace yourself for a surprise twist here — it says something about how disappointing, lurid, corrosively violent, and cynical the world has become that the whole audience (including me!) enjoyed this film. At least, that’s what it felt like in the theater. With the exception of one young man on a date who, sitting in front of me, recoiled from the screen as if suffering a severe allergy, the audience seemed under a spell. There were gasps of delirium at the revelations of the Christian Dior dresses. There were tears whenever Mrs. Harris was the slightest bit inconvenienced. There were cheers when the inevitable fairy-tale dreams came true.

Ellen Thomas plays Vi, Mrs. Harris loyal friend who seems to have no life outside of seeing to Mrs. Harris’s happiness. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

This movie’s like a very expensive wedding cake in which all of the money and effort has gone into the extravagant frosting, but when you cut into it, you find that it’s just a few stacked cupcakes with little substance to speak of. And yet, somehow, it all manages to hold its shape without collapsing under the weight of the decoration. And you end up admiring it for what it is: an impressive artifice.

Who can begrudge audiences a plate of hyper-colored meringues after two excessively fatty, unbearably greasy Marvel movies this summer?

And, if you think about it, there’s no less wishful thinking and fantasizing and denial in Top Gun: Maverick than there is here. Different versions of the same thing: escapism that appeals to the most audacious dreamers among us, and that works overtime to keep us from asking any questions that might spoil the illusion.

Oh how this movie loves zooming in on Manville’s face, with vertigo effects for emphasis. Wow… she really likes Dior dresses! [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

Mrs. Harris is not my idea of a holy fool we can learn from and admire. She assures us that a very broken world can be repaired with just some common sense and kindness, and that’s hard for me to stomach right now as I watch generations of blood-sweat-and-tears goodness erased by ignorance and cruelty.

But I’ll bet Paddington Bear would love this film. He’d probably quietly admit, in his most Whishaw-ish half-whisper, that has now has a crush on Leslie Manville. He’d lean out his window at night and make a wish, and the BFG would show up and carry him off to Paris to see a Christian Dior runway show.

Did I mention that, adding to the “How does this movie exist?” mystery of it all, this thing includes fully committed performances from the great Isabelle Huppert and distinguished Lambert Wilson?!

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Note: I wrote these impressions down in the theater as the credits rolled. Then I came home and, out of curiosity, looked up the New York Times review, only to be startled to see Paddington mentioned in their review’s subheading! And here I thought I might have made an inspired comparison. (Sigh.) Oh well.