9 Best Movies to Watch by Lesley Manville

Staff & contributors

A woman yearns to find her biological mother, another woman struggles with infertility, a third wants to connect with her rebellious daughter. Director Mike Leigh has the prowess to seamlessly weave these stories together, and part of the joy is knowing, that like clockwork, these narratives are set on a spectacular collision course.

As melancholy as it is optimistic and as funny as it is tragic, Secrets & Lies is a perfect example of Leigh’s oeuvre and earned him a Cannes’ Palme d’Or. The film features a full cast of his regulars with the fantastic addition of Marianne Jean Baptiste as Hortense - the woman who sets the wheels of the film in motion.

Mike Leigh’s forthright and compassionate depiction of working-class life extends to his period pieces as well. Imelda Staunton is remarkable as Vera Drake, a housekeeper in 1950’s London who quietly performs abortions on the side.

Leigh’s vigilant portrayal of class highlights the stark divide between abortion access for the poor and what is offered to the rich. The storytelling is simple and straightforward, he doesn’t over-sentimentalize or grandstand, but merely depicts conditions as they were. Meanwhile, Staunton’s Vera oozes so much fullness, warmth, and empathy, that the heartbreak that follows is mercilessly palpable. 

A flawless Daniel Day‑Lewis stars in this thought-provoking romance. He plays a successful dressmaker in post-second-World-War London who falls for a waitress while on an excursion to the countryside. It's hard to tell you what this movie is about without ruining the story for you but I can tell you how it made me feel: it kept me guessing the whole time. Day-Lewis' character is so masterfully played that I felt that every move he made was calculated and that every line meant something. Plus, expect stunning dresses, beautiful country-side sequences, and an all-around gorgeous aesthetic experience.

Grounded by Lesley Manville and Timothy Spall’s powerhouse performances, this gut-wrenching family drama from Mike Leigh is an acting juggernaut. Penny and Phil are a working-class couple whose marriage is rapidly deteriorating and pushed to the brink when their son, played by a young James Corden, is hospitalized. 

While Manville and Spall are centered as the leads, Leigh draws a staggering amount of depth from Corden as well as a young Sally Hawkins who plays a neighbor. Despite being one of Leigh’s grimmest films, there is still a profound sweetness lingering at the edges as the story teeters between despondency and hope.

This six-chapter British miniseries stars the ever-reliable Stellan Skarsgård as an erratic London police detective. He starts seeing visions or “manifests” of his recently murdered colleague and tries to solve her case even though he was excluded from it. River blends reality and illusion in a thoughtful and original police thriller.

This is a very nice movie about a lovely older couple named Tom and Gerri. It follows their lives for an entire year, as they work at their jobs, invite friends over for dinner, and work in their garden. They live modest but fulfilling lives, and they seem mostly happy and very much in love, a rarity in the movies. This probably sounds horribly boring to most people, but since Mike Leigh is the director, the film is instead a touching and realistic portrayal of love and how people spend their time together. We should all be so lucky as to live a life as charmed as the central couple in this film.

Mike Leigh’s films have always touched on class politics, but seldom as directly as in this lowkey portrait of Thatcher-era London. Cyril and Shirley are a sweet working-class couple at a crossroads in their relationship. Their lifestyle is contrasted with Cyril’s sister and her husband who exist in a more comfortable middle-class setting, and then paralleled again with an upper-class couple living next door from Cyril’s mother. 

Even at this early stage of his career Leigh gracefully entwines these stories to create a moving and coherent narrative. ‘High Hopes’ as a title might be largely sarcastic, but the film is full-hearted and occasionally even optimistic as it strides its snarky way through the grim facades of 80s London.

It's difficult to portray Cinderella stories nowadays without making them feel cliche and irrelevant, but Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris seems to have achieved the impossible: it tells a well-worn tale without losing any of its charms, and Lesley Manville is the person to thank for this surprising triumph. As the titular Mrs. Harris, Manville is so sweet and likable —thoroughly convincing in her rags-to-riches journey—that it's impossible to watch her without grinning from ear to ear. Sure, the beats are predictable, polished to a fault even, but Manville makes every scene worth it. This is a feel-good movie if ever there was one, made even more enjoyable for fans of earnest performances, beautiful dresses, and clean, straightforward storytelling.

If you're a fan of musical theater of any kind, Topsy-Turvy pays tribute to that notoriously tricky art form with a stunning attention to detail and a dedication to telling its story without any unnecessary drama whatsoever. It's hard not to get swept up in the humor, entertainment, and simple joy found in the writing process and in rehearsals of entire scenes. Come for the Oscar-winning costumes and makeup, stay for the wonderfully old-timey musical numbers, the brilliantly grounded performance from Jim Broadbent, and the sense of satisfaction of just watching everything finally come together to thunderous applause.