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Lesley Manville is the effervescent title character in 'Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris'


Let me tell you about Ada Harris, a hardworking housekeeper in postwar London. She scrubs homes for people in the upper crust of the times. And one day, she spots a sparkly fancy dress in a chair in the home of a wealthy client. It's a frock designed by Christian Dior in Paris, costs 500 pounds. The sight of that dress ignites a dream to have something like that herself one day. The title of a new movie tells us what happens next - "Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris."

Lesley Manville plays Mrs. Harris and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

LESLEY MANVILLE: Oh, you're very welcome, Scott. It's lovely to be talking to you.

SIMON: Movie is based on the 1958 novel by Paul Gallico. What called out to you about this story?

MANVILLE: Well, you know, it's a period I know quite a lot about, having done "Phantom Thread" and through a play that I'd done with Mike Leigh some years ago as well, which explored a woman in the 1950s. I knew quite a lot about the social, cultural temperature of that period. For me, I just wanted to try and breathe some very realistic life into this woman who was full of care and love and optimism. And with film, I've tended to be more of the supporting artist. So I thought, right, OK, I'm going to use this one and put myself right up front and take full responsibility for how this film kind of succeeds, really, or fails.

SIMON: What does a Christian Dior dress mean to Mrs. Harris?

MANVILLE: Well, to Mrs. Harris, it's a thing of beauty. In a way, she doesn't overanalyze it. But in the film, you can see the dress as a kind of metaphor for other things that she's wanting in her life. Most of all, she's wanting this sense of adventure that...

SIMON: Yeah.

MANVILLE: ...All right, my life isn't going to be over. But more than that, I'm going to give myself this challenge to get what to most people would be seemingly impossible for a woman of her standing, of her financial status. And along the way, of course, she influences so many other characters' lives, and...

SIMON: Yeah.

MANVILLE: ...When she sees injustices being done, she tries to put them right. You know, she's a very wholesome, honest speaking truth-teller.

SIMON: And so Mrs. Harris, the - I guess we can fairly call her a scrub woman - walks into Dior in Paris, and with a couple of exceptions, they love her (laughter).


SIMON: She touches them. It's wonderful.

MANVILLE: Yes. Well, they find her quite refreshing.

SIMON: Yeah.

MANVILLE: She's not the kind of figure that you'd normally see inside the House of Dior. But fortunately, there's enough people there that day who see the wholesomeness of her and that she's just a woman on a mission. And she goes to Paris with her empty suitcase to bring the dress home in. She honestly thinks she can go there and pick a dress off the rails and bring it home that day. You know, she's got delicious naivete about her.

SIMON: How do you feel about dresses? Are they works of art?

MANVILLE: I love clothes. I've always loved clothes. And I think, yes, clothes are beautiful, and they can be works of art. I mean, if you look at some of the designs of 1940s, 1950s Dior, there's an added beauty to it because we were coming out of the war, when everything had been rationed, including fabric. So...

SIMON: Yeah.

MANVILLE: ...There was this whole culture of making things do, you know, darning, stitching, repairing. But those clothes that Dior was creating in that time, they had an added beauty because there'd been so much austerity and cutting back and so much absence of beauty throughout the war that they were even more beautiful than they are anyway. But now, I love fashion. I look at the beautiful gowns that all the designers are creating. And, you know, I am in awe of them. It is an art form, definitely.

SIMON: I found myself also touched in the film about what postwar life was like in Great Britain - and France, for that matter. In Britain, there was the deprivation. There was the making do. There was the feeling that something terrible survived. A lot of people were lost. And in France, there was all of that, and also, I must say, this terrible humiliation under which they had lived for five years. I thought the portrayal was quite good on that.

MANVILLE: Given that it's a film that we want people to go and see because it's a lovely bit of escapism for a couple of hours, it's got some bite and some social drama to it as well. Those things being part of the backdrop of it give it a weight that it needs. You know, you can't just make a sugary, fluffy, candy floss film about a dress. In the same way that Ada Harris has to have some dramatic weight to her, the whole subject needs to have a dramatic weight to it, and - otherwise the audience won't stay engaged.

SIMON: None of my business, but do you wear Dior?

MANVILLE: I did wear Dior. We had a lovely small opening of the film in the East Hamptons a few weeks ago. And I've used Dior perfume for many, many years. It makes you feel good. And goodness me, our world is tough enough.

SIMON: Yeah.

MANVILLE: And that's, of course, one of the things that shifted with the House of Dior in the '50s. They started to see...

SIMON: As you show.

MANVILLE: ...Yeah...

SIMON: Yeah.

MANVILLE: ...That you couldn't just cater for the woman who was wealthy enough or whose husband was wealthy enough to buy the couture gowns. The ordinary woman wanted to have some Dior in her life. You know, if you couldn't afford the dress, you could afford to have a Dior lipstick.

SIMON: Lesley Manville - her new movie, "Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris." Thank you so much for being with us.

MANVILLE: It's been lovely to speak to you, Scott. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.