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Film

Paul Thomas Anderson on the brilliance of Lesley Manville

In 2017, Lesley Manville was nominated for Best Supporting Actress by the Academy Awards due to her stellar performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s incredible drama Phantom Thread. Ever since this working collaboration, the director has openly shared his love for her performance.

Alongside the ferocious, snobbish, and obsessive Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Manville shines as his sister and co-worker, Cyril. She is the one who manages to keep the House of Woodcock afloat, whilst the fastidious Reynolds becomes involved with underdog Alma Elson, played phenomenally by Vicky Krieps.

Cyril’s hardiness is enviable, she is clearly used to dealing with Reynold’s difficult idiosyncrasies that test Alma’s character. In fact, Cyril seems to be capable of dealing with anything, her pragmatic demeanour and sharp wit outshine Reynold’s egotism – he is unaware of just how dependant he is on his sister, who he views as a mother figure.

Manville’s delivery of such biting remarks as “Don’t pick a fight with me, you certainly won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you, and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor,” paired with a delicate sip from a china cup is simply mesmerising, cementing Cyril as many viewers favourite character – unbothered, unabashed, and strong-willed.

Manville’s Cyril is just one of many, yet undoubtedly stand-out, characters that Anderson has crafted over his career, which began in the mid-1990s when he released the debut feature Hard Eight. Anderson’s films almost always feature dysfunctional characters and dynamics, and Phantom Thread is no exception, in fact, it is arguably one of his greatest achievements in filmmaking so far and would not be as brilliant without the astute and razor-sharp cast of characters, all hand-picked to perfection.  

In an interview with the American Film Institute, Paul Thomas Anderson discusses the brilliance of Lesley Manville. Anderson declares his love for the English actress, stating that “she can do no wrong; you could ask her to do anything, and she could do it.” Manville has a long and illustrious list of acting credits, beginning her career in the mid-70s as Rosemary Kendall in Emmerdale, making her way up to large productions such as Dance with a Stranger, Maleficent, and seven Mike Leigh films, including Secrets and Lies and Another Year.

It’s not just on-screen where Manville excels, she also has an impressive list of theatre credits, regularly performing for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. For her contribution to drama, she was awarded a CBE in 2021, so it seems that even the highest of orders agree with Anderson on Manville’s brilliance. Manville’s role in Phantom Thread ties the whole film together. Without her, Anderson states, “there’s no way Alma’s going to survive, […] without Cyril the whole place crumbles.”

Exactly that. Without Manville’s stoic, knowing look looming over the viewer, an omniscient force that reminds us of Reynold’s shortcomings, the film would begin to unravel, just like the House of Woodcock. Cyril is the glue that holds everything together, and Anderson clearly made the right decision in casting an actress as magnificent as Manville, who was able to hold her own against such a marvellous and incredulous, at times frightening, performance by Daniel Day-Lewis.