Lesley Manville is Finally Having Her Movie Star Moment

The ”Phantom Thread” scene-stealer and star of the upcoming ”Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” falls for a Dior dress—on and off screen

British stage and screen actor Lesley Manville is ready, at last—not just for her starring role close-up—but for utter reinvention. After most notably appearing in supporting roles in a myriad of British auteur Mike Leigh’s films (Another Year, Secrets & Lies) over the past four decades she then began to take on more mainstream fare, like supporting roles n Maleficent and Let Him Go.

In the last few years, Manville’s tucked two 1950s-set, high fashion-focused films under her wasp-waisted belt: 2017’s dazzling Phantom Thread, in which she played the taskmaster ice queen sister, Cyril Woodcock, to Daniel Day-Lewis’s womanizing couturier in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ode to couplehood and its power dynamics. Manville’s portrayal earned her an Oscar nomination—for supporting actress, to boot.

Now, she’s taken on the title character role in the new film Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, which is based on Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel. It’s an uplifting Cinderella story about a British cleaning woman who falls madly in love—with a couture dress. A Christian Dior, no less, as in the great post-war Parisian couturier who recreated European fashion with his 1947 “New Look”—a striking silhouette with a slim peplum jacket and slender belted waist, paired with a full midi skirt slightly padded below the waist to accentuate the hourglass shape.

Dior’s 1947 New Look proliferated for the next decade

Not only is the film a love letter to the House of Dior, which showed its fall 2022 couture collection in Paris just last week, but Anthony Fabian’s movie is its own love note to the heralded romanticism of 1950s Paris. And a love letter to invisible middle-aged women desperately in need of late-in-life dream fulfillment. Plus the costumes are designed by three-time Oscar winner Jenny Beaven with the House of Dior’s collaboration.

“It was nice for me to do a feel-good film,” says Manville, who’s often played rather brittle women. “At the time I got the script, we didn’t know we were going to go through a pandemic. I’m hopeful that people will go back to the cinema and see it where they should be able to see it.”

Lesley Manville as Ada Harris in “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.”

LAMag caught up with Manville over Zoom and during a stifling hot day in London. While she;s played a number of rather plain women, it turns out, she’s a fashion femme at heart.

LAMag: In the last few years, you’ve now made two films set in the high fashion world in the 1950’s. Coincidence—or is it possible you gravitate to fashion film content like Phantom Thread and Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris?

Manville: “Listen, I love my fashion anyway! I love clothes. My mother was a fabulous dresser, she looked great in a black cocktail dress. I’ve grown up on clothes—when I was young, I was always trying to dress a bit differently. So when a film like Phantom Thread come along, it was just utopia! Mrs. Harris was a complete surprise – of course, they’re the same period. Having played Cyril Woodcock in Phantom Thread, who was very elegant, all those lovely dresses nipped in at the waist that Mark Bridges made for me, Mrs. Harris is the opposite end of the spectrum: Being lovely Ada Harris in her little apron, then getting to wear an exquisite Dior dress! She gets to wear this gorgeous dress that you don’t normally see a woman of that class in.”

Lesley Manville’s Ada Harris gets a fitting at the House of Dior in Paris

LaMag: Did you research 1950s Dior?
LM: I did, I did, but on Phantom Thread is when that research really happened. We had wonderful help from archivists at the Victoria & Albert Museum. They had loads of books to look at. It was helpful that I was very familiar with those Dior dresses from seeing those. Jenny Beaven, our three-time Oscar-winning costume designer on Mrs. Harris had to copy some of those Dior dresses.

LAMag: Are they copies of real Dior dresses?
LM: Yes, Dior worked on the film as well, along with Jenny Beaven. They were very involved. I think I’m right that Dior lent us a couple of originals. When they filmed the fashion show in Mrs. Harris, I’m sitting there as Ada, and people on set  kept asking me, ‘was all that reaction scripted?’ [laughing]. ‘Oh, look at it, doesn’t she look lovely?’ That was easy for me because I’m just in love with those clothes anyway!

LAMag: Have you ever worn Dior clothes in real life?
LM: Well, I haven’t worn a lot, but they made me a dress for a New York premiere in the Hamptons.

LAMag: How fabulous! Did you do a fitting with you and all that?
LM: I’m so busy right now—but they came recently with a tailor, we tried on stuff, and the dress came back almost right away—all done!

LAMag: As a serious Oscar-nominated actress, do you consider it frivolous to attach so much relevance, as Ada does, to a dress? Why is she so obsessed with having this dress she has nowhere to go in?

LM: She doesn’t know why. Why do we have to explain it? Why do we have to analyze it? It’s pure, unashamed beauty aesthetic—why shouldn’t we have that in our lives, you know? It’s about becoming a sort of walking work of art. Ada would have been watching films from the 20s, 30s, and 40s, with all those silver screen goddesses. Also remember, they’ve just come out of a war, where there was no beauty in anyone’s life. So the 50s becomes this time celebrating the female form. That’s what Dior did—it was a wonderful time for waists, liberation from the horrific time of people losing people they loved. It’s the time that led into that wild time of the 60s. It was a very interesting period—coming out of something horrible and bridging us to the 60s when, my God, so much changed!

LAMag: When Mrs. Harris actually wears her Dior, she even walks differently—quite elegantly.
LM: Well, you know, it wasn’t a conscious thing. It happened instinctually, organically. I knew what that dress meant to Ada –she was never going to put it on and not LIVE in it. She was going to breathe that dress – every fiber of her being had to come up to fulfill the dreams of that dress.

LAMag: She’s Eliza Doolittle, isn’t she?
LM: That’s it! That was the challenge —as I walked down that long set of stone stairs, I did not want to look at my feet! When we walk downstairs, we do that, don’t we? I thought, I better really practice this because I just wanted to look ahead. That “here I am” moment. Sometimes – the truth is, you know—clothes do that to you, don’t they? That’s why it’s so hard to work out what to put on in the morning. If you’re feeling a bit insecure about yourself, you need to put on something to help you get through the day. Clothes are your own personal language, aren’t they?

LAMag: It looks like the projects you’re working on currently also are heavy on the period costumes.
LM: Yes, I was shooting a new Starz production of Dangerous Liaisons in Prague. I think it’s coming out later in the year. It has extraordinary costumes, really extraordinary. The look of that character is so rich and decadent with heavy brocades, extraordinary – the fabrics were so lush. And of course, I’m doing Princess Margaret in the next two seasons of The Crown. That’s set in the 90s. Some of my favorite costumes are Margaret lounging around at home, you know. Because nobody quite lounged like Margaret. She took it to a whole new level! The cigarette, the gin and tonic.

LAMag: Speaking of high fashion, how much did you love working with Isabelle Huppert in Mrs. Harris?
LM: Well, that one knows how to wear a frock, I will tell you! She’s an amazing woman, as you can imagine. Striking, gorgeous, talented—I mean, dry, great sense of humor. And boy oh boy, I wouldn’t mind rummaging through her wardrobe.

LAMag: Have you been to any real fashion shows?
LM:  I’ve been to two, actually. There’s a fantastic London designer named Anna Valentine, who designed my Oscar gown for Phantom Thread and my BAFTA nomination outfit—I’ve been to her shows. Then Simone Rochas asked me to her show in 2020. You can find the picture of me at it. I mean, extraordinary clothes. She’s a very good friend of a very good friend—who she asked, “Do you think Lesley would walk for me?” I said, ‘YEAH! Never did that before!’ I did like it. I did. But I found it hard not to smile. I just wanted to go, ‘Look at ME! I’m a model!’

LAMag: Will it be hard to come back to sartorial reality?
LM: I’ve just been filming in Atlanta, playing a great high-status woman, so they got me some amazing clothes, even though they are modern. I wore a lot of Akris, some Lafayette 148—it’s a new series from Alfonso Cuaron called Disclaimer, with Cate Blanchett and Kevin Kline. Cate—there’s another wardrobe person. Look at me —I’ve gone from Paul Thomas Anderson to Alfonso Cuaron.

LAMag: You’re certainly having a moment.
LM: Listen, I worked all my life, and supported myself since I was 16. The fact that it’s been a slow burn is absolutely how I always wanted it to be. I never wanted to be suddenly famous for 5 minutes when I was in my 20s. It’s all earned!

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