More evidence that women, especially women over 50, are being pushed backward (as if we needed more). The new film Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, based on Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel, is a pleasantly sweet confection about Ada Harris (Lesley Manville), a widowed British cleaning woman who overcomes many obstacles to purchase an haute couture Christian Dior dress. (It opens July 15.)
Yet Ada, in her 60s in the 1950s, is more independent, adventuresome and sexually alive than the title character of the Canada-Malta co-production Carmen – an unmarried 50-year-old (Natascha McElhone) in the 1980s, who is abruptly thrown out of her home and job in a Catholic rectory when her brother, a priest, dies, and must discover who she is and what she wants. (It won best film at the Canadian Film Festival in March and will be released Aug. 19.)
And both Ada and Carmen are more alive in every way than Nancy (Emma Thompson), 55, in the film Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, set in the present day. (It’s now streaming on Prime Video.) A widowed high school religious studies teacher, Nancy hires the titular male prostitute (Daryl McCormack) to “get through” a checklist of things she’s never done in bed, which includes having an orgasm. She also admits to having slut-shamed her students for, among other things, wearing short skirts.
Let’s screech to a halt and think about this. A 55-year-old in 2022 was born in 1967 and graduated high school in 1985. She came of age in the sexual revolution, surrounded by information from, among others, The Hite Report; Our Bodies, Ourselves; The Joy of Sex; every cover of Cosmopolitan magazine; and the famous scene in the 1982 film Tootsie where Teri Garr rails at Dustin Hoffman, “I read The Second Sex, I read The Cinderella Complex, I’m responsible for my own orgasm!” She wouldn’t be shaming others for wearing short skirts and having sex – she would be the one who wore the skirts and had the sex.
The filmmakers could have come up with innumerable credible reasons for Nancy to hire Leo: She married her first sexual partner and never had great sex with him. Or they fell into a rut over the years. Or she hasn’t had an orgasm in ages. You know, something that might be true to the lived experience of an actual 55-year-old woman. But to make her a sexual ignoramus, held down by her dullard husband, is just insulting, a miscalculation from which the film never recovers. Even Carmen, who emerges after 34 years shut up in a rectory, wastes little time before she dyes her hair, buys a red dress and finds a fella.
The fact that Good Luck to You, Leo Grande was written and directed by women; that Carmen has a female writer/director; and that Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris sports a female screenwriter (out of four writers credited) just makes my heart hurt more. Are there really that many women in this current millennium who bend themselves to their husband’s wills, unhappily? And is that really the only story to tell about 50-plus women in 2022?
I got to ask Manville about this in a video interview last week. She looked effortlessly chic, her curly hair swept back. In her film, Ada tells a friend, “That’s what we are, invisible women.” Manville liked that line. She understood Ada. “I grew up with women like her” in Brighton, England, Manville said. “My parents were working class.” (Her father was a taxi driver.) “I understand that world of having enough, but not having a lot. The scrimping and saving, counting your money in the tin.”
But Manville, 66, became a singer, then a stage actress (with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, among others), then a regular in Mike Leigh’s films. She earned a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for Phantom Thread when she was 61. She never felt underestimated. She “had no truck” with that. “Don’t push me into a corner just because I’m over 60,” she says. “We’ve got to stop thinking that a woman who’s over 50 doesn’t want to have a romantic or sexual life any more. That’s ludicrous.”
In November, we’ll see Manville as the frankly sexual Princess Margaret – a woman deserving of a modern reassessment – in Season 5 of Netflix’s The Crown, a baton handed to her by Vanessa Kirby and Helena Bonham Carter. (Those three would have been a “Sexy at Every Age” feature in Cosmo, back in the day.) Manville will also appear in the coming Starz series Dangerous Liaisons, a prequel to the Choderlos de Laclos novel and Christopher Hampton play, imagining what the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil (Nicholas Denton and Alice Englert) were like when they were young. Manville plays Genevieve de Merteuil, who passes her title to Englert’s character.
Manville has a long history with that story – she appeared in the original, 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hampton’s play as Cecile, the innocent caught up in Valmont and Merteuil’s sexual gamesmanship. Manville calls her new character “delicious to play. She’s tormented, in a loveless marriage. She wants to be loud and active about her disquiet, but she’s not in a period, a climate, where she can be. So she takes other steps.”
She takes other steps – my point exactly. Show me a way to be a 60-year-old woman that feels true to the 21st century, even when your story is set in the 18th. Give me unabashedly commanding, sexual 50-plus women like Fiona Shaw on Killing Eve (Crave, the first season especially), or Kristin Scott Thomas on Slow Horses (Apple+). Or at least give me a scene like the one in the Apple+ series Loot, where Molly (Maya Rudolph), a newly filthy-rich divorcee, whines to Sofia (Michaela Jae Rodriguez), who runs a foundation Molly didn’t know she owned.
“I got swept up in my husband’s life,” Molly says, looking for sympathy. “Everything was him him him. I never did the work to find out who I am or who I’m supposed to be. But I’m doing that now and it’s really, really scary.”
“I don’t care about any of that,” Sofia replies.
At the very least, give me the moment at the end of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, when the filmmakers acknowledge, however subtly, the absurdity that Archie, the local aging swain (Jason Isaacs), suddenly sees Ada anew when she arrives at a dance in her Dior. Or as Manville puts it, “It takes seeing Ada in a nice dress, all done up, for him to go, ‘Oh you’re also a woman, and you’re not 25, and I still think you’re attractive, my goodness!’
“In the 1950s, women were pushing forward to the place we are today, and we’re still pushing now,” Manville sums up. “Still fighting to have freedom and rights. Inch by inch, isn’t it? And every inch is a battle.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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