11 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.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alison Steadman, Angela Curran, Anthony O'Donnell, Brenda Blethyn, Brian Bovell, Claire Rushbrook, Clare Perkins, David Neilson, Denise Orita, Elizabeth Berrington, Emma Amos, Frances Ruffelle, Gary McDonald, Grant Masters, Hannah Davis, Janice Acquah, Jean Ainslie, Joe Tucker, Jonny Coyne, Keylee Jade Flanders, Lee Ross, Lesley Manville, Linda Beckett, Liz Smith, Lucy Sheen, Margery Withers, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Mia Soteriou, Michele Austin, Nitin Ganatra, Paul Trussell, Peter Wight, Phil Davis, Phyllis Logan, Richard Syms, Ron Cook, Ruth Sheen, Sheila Kelley, Stephen Churchett, Su Eliott, Su Elliott, Terence Harvey, Timothy Spall, Trevor Laird, Wendy Nottingham

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: R

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. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adrian Scarborough, Alan Williams, Alex Kelly, Allan Corduner, Angela Curran, Anna Keaveney, Anthony O'Donnell, Billie Cook, Billy Seymour, Chris O'Dowd, Craig Conway, Daniel Mays, Eddie Marsan, Eileen Davies, Elizabeth Berrington, Emma Amos, Fenella Woolgar, Gerard Monaco, Heather Craney, Helen Coker, Imelda Staunton, Jake Wood, James Payton, Jane Wood, Jeffry Wickham, Jim Broadbent, Joanna Griffiths, John Warman, Leo Bill, Lesley Manville, Lesley Sharp, Liz White, Marion Bailey, Martin Savage, Nicholas Jones, Nicky Henson, Paul Jesson, Paul Raffield, Peter Wight, Phil Davis, Richard Graham, Robert Putt, Rosie Cavaliero, Ruth Sheen, Sally Hawkins, Sam Troughton, Sandra Voe, Sid Mitchell, Simon Chandler, Sinéad Matthews, Tilly Vosburgh, Tom Ellis, Vincent Franklin, Vinette Robinson, Wendy Nottingham

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: R

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.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Brian Gleeson, Camilla Rutherford, Daniel Day-Lewis, Dave Simon, Emma Clandon, Eric Sigmundsson, Evie Wray, Gina McKee, Harriet Sansom Harris, Ingrid Sophie Schram, Jane Perry, Jordon Stevens, Julia Davis, Julie Vollono, Lesley Manville, Lujza Richter, Martin Dew, Michael Gabbitas, Niki Angus-Campbell, Philip Franks, Phyllis MacMahon, Richard Graham, Silas Carson, Tim Ahern, Vicky Krieps, Zarene Dallas

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rating: R

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.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alan Williams, Alex Kelly, Alison Garland, Badi Uzzaman, Ben Crompton, Brian Bovell, Daniel Mays, Daniel Ryan, Di Botcher, Diveen Henry, Dorothy Atkinson, Edna Doré, Emma Lowndes, Gary McDonald, Heather Craney, Helen Coker, James Corden, Jean Ainslie, Joe Tucker, Kathryn Hunter, Leo Bill, Lesley Manville, Marion Bailey, Mark Benton, Martin Savage, Matt Bardock, Maxine Peake, Michele Austin, Paul Jesson, Robert Wilfort, Russell Mabey, Ruth Sheen, Sally Hawkins, Sam Kelly, Timothy Bateson, Timothy Spall

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: R

, 2015

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.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adeel Akhtar, Eddie Marsan, Georgina Rich, Lesley Manville, Nicola Walker, Owen Teale, Sorcha Cusack, Stellan Skarsgård, Steve Nicolson, Turlough Convery

Rating: TV-MA

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.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Badi Uzzaman, Ben Roberts, David Bradley, Edna Doré, Eileen Davies, Gary Powell, Imelda Staunton, Jim Broadbent, Karina Fernandez, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Mary Jo Randle, Meneka Das, Michele Austin, Oliver Maltman, Peter Wight, Phil Davis, Ralph Ineson, Ruth Sheen, Stuart McQuarrie

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: PG-13

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.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: David Bamber, Edna Doré, Heather Tobias, Jason Watkins, Lesley Manville, Linda Beckett, Phil Davis, Philip Jackson, Ruth Sheen

Director: Mike Leigh

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.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alba Baptista, Anna Chancellor, Ben Addis, Bertrand Poncet, Christian McKay, Csémy Balázs, Declan Hannigan, Delroy Atkinson, Ellen Thomas, Freddie Fox, Guilaine Londez, Igor Szász, Isabelle Huppert, Jade Lopez, Jason Isaacs, Lambert Wilson, Lesley Manville, Lucas Bravo, Panka Murányi, Rose Williams, Roxane Duran, Vincent Martin, Zsolt Páll

Director: Anthony Fabian

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.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, History, Music

Actor: Akemi Otani, Alison Steadman, Allan Corduner, Andy Serkis, Angela Curran, Anna Francolini, Ashley Artus, Ashley Jensen, Bríd Brennan, Cathy Sara, Charles Simon, Debbie Chazen, Dexter Fletcher, Dorothy Atkinson, Eiji Kusuhara, Eleanor David, Eve Pearce, Francis Lee, Gemma Page, Geoffrey Hutchings, Heather Craney, Jim Broadbent, John Warnaby, Jonathan Aris, Julia Rayner, Julian Bleach, Kacey Ainsworth, Katrin Cartlidge, Kenneth Hadley, Kevin McKidd, Lavinia Bertram, Lesley Manville, Louise Gold, Mark Benton, Martin Savage, Mary Roscoe, Matt Bardock, Matthew Mills, Mia Soteriou, Michael Simkins, Monica Dolan, Naoko Mori, Nicholas Boulton, Nicholas Woodeson, Nick Bartlett, Paul Barnhill, Richard Coyle, Roger Heathcott, Ron Cook, Rosie Cavaliero, Sam Kelly, Shirley Henderson, Sophie Duval, Steve Speirs, Sukie Smith, Teresa Gallagher, Timothy Spall, Togo Igawa, Vincent Franklin, Wendy Nottingham

Director: Mike Leigh