Mrs Harris Goes To Paris director Anthony Fabian talks to us about his love of Paul Gallico, making the invisible visible and Lesley Manville.
I tell director Anthony Fabian that I found his new film Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris delightfully old-fashioned. He tells me he’s never sure how to take that but agrees that in the midst of all the Marvel films dominating the screens, films like Mrs. Harris are a rare delicacy.
And a rare delight Mrs. Harris is indeed. Lesley Manville plays the titular Ada Harris who, after seeing one hung in a wealthy client’s wardrobe, wants to buy a dress. But not any dress, a Dior dress. We got together with director Anthony Fabian to chat about his new film, out in cinemas now.
How did the project start for you?
I’ve been a lifelong Paul Gallico fan, ever since I was a little boy when I started reading his novels. When I signed with a manager in LA, he happened to represent the Paul Gallico estate, which was a plus point for me. Some years later, he sent me a script of Mrs. Harris, not a book that I had been familiar with before. I was immediately taken with this delightful central character and her crazy pursuit of this dream. But the thing that made me feel [that] I was potentially the right person to direct it was that my father had moved to Paris when I was seven years old. And my stepmother is French. So I had a lot of knowledge of the French side of this, which I thought I could bring to the table when making the film. And it certainly proved incredibly useful.
There’s a very different look between London and Paris. You’ve got post-war London and then this glamorous, illuminated Paris. How did you achieve that effect?
Post-war London was very different from post-war Paris. We had the Blitz, many buildings had been destroyed whereas Paris was preserved through their own history, for good or bad. And there was still rationing in the UK and it was quite a grim time.
What we discussed with the production designer, Luciana Arrighi, Jenny Beavan, the costume designer, the cameraman Felix Biederman, and myself was, we wanted to create a very different look for the two cities. Part of the secret of that was not just architectural, but actually in terms of the colour journey of the film. We chose a colour palette for London, which was softer greens, browns, greys, and a colour palette for Paris that was sharper. So it was blacks and whites and stronger colours. That made a huge difference in terms of your feeling about entering another world.
Then, of course, just the natural differences in terms of the architecture of the two cities, and we did shoot in London and Paris as well as in Budapest. We established the important exteriors that you couldn’t do any other way. I think once you present the real Albert bridge early in the film, and you establish that you’re in London, I think the audience just goes with it and doesn’t consider whether you might have shot any of it somewhere else.
And like you said, you knew the French side of things and you’re based in London. As a director, do you try to find something personal in each project?
There absolutely has to be some very deep personal connection to whatever I do. Making films is incredibly difficult. I’m sure sweeping the streets is more difficult, but it is a very time consuming, emotionally consuming, frustrating and difficult endeavour. If I’m going to put this kind of energy and effort into something, it needs to be something that I am profoundly connected to emotionally, and intellectually. It has to have enough layers to sustain me through the many years that it takes to get a film made.
My first film, Skin, which is set in South Africa, is about the Black child born of white parents during apartheid. I had no connection to South Africa before but it had so many fascinating layers that I was able to sink my teeth into it. I had to really get to know and understand the whole history and culture of South Africa in order to tell that story. So that’s what sustained me through the many years of trying to get that made. With Mrs. Harris, the book perhaps doesn’t give you all of these levels and layers of the story, but it gives you enough of the bones for you to be able to create that flesh.
Did you feel that you had to stay quite close to the novel?
My philosophy generally with adaptation, whether it be a true life story, or from a novel is that there will always be people that love the original. You need to be faithful so that those people will not be disappointed in the result. And if you can possibly do it, enhance the original rather than change it in some way that makes it unrecognisable.
I knew that there was a huge generation of people for whom it was their favourite book, and I didn’t want them to be disappointed by the film. Everything in a way that’s in that novella is in the film, but we just brought so much more to the table in terms of subplots, in terms of added layers of meaning why she wants this dress.
The whole workers rights subplot was not in the book, the strike in Paris was not in the book, Archie is not in the book. Some of these story elements are found in the second and third and fourth novels of the Mrs. Harris series. We, in a way, just brought them in a little bit earlier, because Gallico obviously felt these were elements that would be necessary in telling her story.
One of the things that you changed was the nationality of Ada’s best friend, Vi. Why did you want to bring an immigrant story into it as well?
It’s really interesting, because there are some ignorant people in this country who don’t understand that there’s a long history in this country of Black British people. Particularly in the 1950s with the Windrush, there was a whole generation that came over from Jamaica. And it felt, to me, completely natural to cast Ada Harris’s best friend as a Jamaican character, and for them to have a friendship which was formed in the munitions factories during the war where they both volunteered or worked.
Their friendship is one of the most beautiful things in the film and a very credible friendship, and a very natural one. It’s one of the ways in which I wanted to create a film that was both period and modern. In our modern sensibilities, a world without diversity makes absolutely no sense and just feels weird. At the same time, I wanted to do it in a way that was still historically accurate. Some people have remarked on the fashion show, which has a black model, mixed race model, an Asian model, a Latina model. Yes, Christian Dior had a diverse range of models. All our models were based on existing models of the time, but we just don’t see it.
What I’m doing is, in a way with this film, looking at the invisible and making it visible. It’s one of the themes of the film, making those characters who have been invisible in cinema before and making them visible now.
Is this a political film?
Sometimes I like to call what I do ‘putting the spinach in the lasagna’. You don’t know that it’s good for you and you don’t know that it’s there. The whole workers rights subplot of the film is a very important one, and gives a backbone to the story and the characters, because otherwise it would be like a dandelion that just blows away.
The story is about haute couture, which means the highest level of fashion achievable. And it’s talking about a cleaning lady who aspires to that, and she’s at the lowest end of the social stratum. So, in a way, it is political automatically because it’s talking about class. You can’t make a film that’s set in Britain without dealing with class and the minute you talk about class, you have to talk about politics, the two are inextricably bound.
Ada has very little money, but she wants this beautiful dress that’s just for her. Why do you think it was so important to bring up that desire just to have something for yourself?
There are a few different levels at which it works. I don’t think there’s a single human being who hasn’t aspired to attain something seemingly unattainable, to buy something that they can’t afford. It’s a very natural human instinct to have that desire. Our capitalist society is encouraging us to desire material things all the time, isn’t it? But for me, it applies more widely to any unattainable goal. A cinema protagonist, who is an underdog, who desperately wants something, if you like that character, you want it for them as well. That’s a very, very powerful and compelling way to tell a story.
What was the importance of that very last chapter?
First of all, what happens to her dress happens in the book. So again, I was being faithful to the book. But then I actually tacked on something after that which is not in the book. I felt it was the right ending, a more satisfying ending than the one that Paul Gallico gives you in his book where it’s all about the journey. It isn’t about actually achieving the dress. I thought that was a bit of a downer. I wanted the audience to leave feeling a bit more inspired and a bit more moved, to believe that it is possible to realise your dreams because I believe it myself.
Can you talk about Lesley Manville, who’s luminous as Ada?
Lesley Manville is quite simply one of the greatest British actresses of our time, her time has finally come because this is her first lead role in a cinema feature film, her first time on the side of a double decker bus. She’s had an extraordinary career in the theatre, on television and in films, but not necessarily as the lead.
Ultimately, I really think it is the most perfect match of an actor’s skills at the height of her powers. Ada is a character that would have otherwise been easily played as a fluffy, light, nice, simple character. Instead, she imbues her with enormous pathos and complexity, sympathy and charm. She is able to convince you that she can change the lives of everyone she meets. That was very important. But I have to say it was a bit of a heart in mouth moment, the first time I showed this film to an audience. I really thought, are they going to go on her journey? Or is she going to pull it off? I think the answer is yes, she’s pulled it off.
Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris is in cinemas now.