Lesley Manville Returns to Domestic Realism

The Phantom Thread scene-stealer talks new drama and TIFF fave Ordinary Love.

After starring opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in 2017’s Phantom Thread, Lesley Manville’s seat in domestic-drama canon can forever go unquestioned. But as Joan in TIFF 2019 favorite Ordinary Love—the actress’s first feature film since her icon-making, Oscar-nommed turn as Cyril in Thread—Manville is back on domestic terrain, albeit that of an entirely different sort than Cyril’s diabolic domain. Whereas the latter’s steely, withholding silences could spoil an otherwise splendid parlor room, Manville’s Joan navigates a bedrock-shaking breast cancer diagnosis with open-book humanity. 

Like Thread, Ordinary Love requires layers of chemistry of its players, who in this case are predominantly Manville alongside Liam Neeson (the U.K.’s reigning zaddy since Day-Lewis’s retirement). As Joan and Tom, the two acting vets enact the profound downs and occasional ups of Joan’s journey with subtlety and restraint—requiring, says Manville, a mutual trust offscreen. “Onscreen harmony and ease with another actor is something that is quite hard to cook up if it’s not there organically,” Manville tells us. “Liam is a very warm, generous actor to work with; he doesn’t bring any ego to the set and I think I am the same way. So [that meant] we were able to [portray] this very established couple.”

Lesley Manville (Photography by Rachell Smith)

However ubiquitous cancer may be, Manville and the filmmakers took care to establish dramatic intensity as well as realistic detail throughout Ordinary Love, which is inspired by the true story of the film’s writer, Owen McCafferty, and his wife Peggy. This included casting non-actor medical staff, and simply not flinching at the alone-ness of disease. “[While] it was very useful to have a real chemo nurse or a proper biopsy [technician] administering Joan’s [treatment], in a way it’s a mystery to her in the same way that it’s a mystery for anybody who is going through it,” says Manville. You can be briefed on what [it might be like], but until somebody is actually feeding chemo into your arm, it’s very hard to know what that will do to your head.” 

Indeed, the film wastes no time sugarcoating Joan’s ordeal. Just as they did pre-diagnosis, Tom and Joan will, like any domestic unit, assail their phlegmatic harmony with needless bickering. But that matter-of-factness, in contrast to the bilious Cyril, is ultimately a salve. Echoes Manville: “The clue is in the title: This is an ordinary couple. The film is a testament to the power of love, but it doesn’t shy away from the brutality [of life]; it’s pretty good if you have someone to go through it with, but ultimately we do have to deal with it on our own… We are alone.”

Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville in Ordinary Love (photo: Aidan Monaghan, courtesy of Bleecker Street)
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