Interview: Keith Thompson on writing Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris; “I looked at the story as a way to honour that generation of women”

An “exercise in kindness and couture”, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (read our review here) is the cinematic warm embrace we need in this age of blockbusters.  The enchanting tale of a seemingly ordinary British housekeeper whose dream to own a couture Christian Dior gown takes her on an extraordinary adventure to Paris, the film is arriving in Australian cinemas this week.

To coincide with its release, Peter Gray spoke with the film’s screenwriter, Australian scribe Keith Thompson (The Sapphires), to discuss adapting such a beloved novel, his own personal connection to the story, and the collaborative process in bringing Mrs. Harris to life.

Congratulations on the success of the film, so far.  It seems you managed to attract the demographic that’s been the hardest to entice back to cinemas after the pandemic.  It must be nice to see this film have such a strong hold in cinema?

Yeah, it’s interesting that that is the demographic that have been going to the movie, and it opened in America at the beginning of July.  The reviews were saying, to a large extent, it was nice to have a movie that didn’t feature light sabres and super superheroes.  A story that could appeal to the older demographic, if you like.  It was really well received in America on those terms.  It was really nice to enjoy a little human drama again.

Yeah, it gives hope that the cinema experience is still alive, which is always a good thing.  This is the third iteration of Paul Gallico’s novel.  Was it one that you were familiar with prior to being involved with the film?

I knew of the book.  I don’t think I’d read it before I was asked to come on board with the script.  Angela Lansbury appeared in a 90’s version of the film.  It was very much a movie of its time.  I dipped in and out of that (film).  It was interesting to see how some other people had approached the story, and I think there’d been a stage musical too.  That I wasn’t familiar with (either).

Do you feel there’s any pressure in adapting a novel? Can you ever be too faithful or distant from the source material?

Yeah, you want to honour the book.  The book is very much pre-loved.  There’s an audience, particularly with this story, there’s an audience that is very attached to this story.  It was always surprising to me when I was talking about what I was writing with people.  The number of people that were very familiar with the book and absolutely loved it.  So there’s a pressure to honour what the book is, but there’s also pressure to have what works for the screen.  I think we’ve remained very faithful to the text, but there’s a juggle, you know? Paul Gallico is no longer with us, but I think he would have approved of the changes and the perspective we brought to the story.

You’re one of four writers on the film with director Anthony Fabian and co-writers Carroll Cartwright and Olivia Hetreed.  Is it a collaborative effort or you’re writing separately before coming together with individual ideas?

It was more sequential.  Anthony had written the first draft with Carroll Cartwright, who’s an American.  I met with Anthony in London, and when he came on board he gave me the draft and I worked with him.  For about the next four or five years we did about nine or ten drafts.  Then when I came back to Australia when lockdown happened, and Olivia, who wrote Girl with the Pearl Earring, came on board and did a lovely polish of the script.  It was collaborative that we were all working in our roles to play on the script, but we were never in a room together.

Probably a good thing they had an Australian on board as a writer.  American humour doesn’t always align with the British sensibility…

(Laughs) Yeah.  I was born in England and my mother was a cleaner, (so) I knew those women really well.  It was quite a personal experience for me writing (the script).  I looked at the story as a way to honour that generation of women.  The story is set in 1957, and I remember the 50’s, (so) my intention was very much to honour that generation of working class women.  They were the generation I grew up with in England, that grew up in the Depression.  They were young, married during wartime, (and) separated from their partners for years, sometimes forever, like Mrs. Harris is.

I spoke to Lesley Manville at the London premiere, and she comes from a similar working class background, and I felt within her performance that she understood those women in that generation.  I think she’s absolutely wonderful in the movie.  She just brings you into (her character’s) life in a lovely way.

Are there any other stories that you would love to adapt?

Oh yeah, there’s a library of pieces that I would like to work on in the future.  There are three more Mrs. Harris books, and it’d be lovely to return to her again at some point.  She’s such a gorgeous character.

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is screening in Australian theatres from October 27th, 2022.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.