clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Make the Case: Lesley Manville Is the Real Genius of ‘Phantom Thread’

The meticulous master of the House of Woodcock is a first-time Oscar nominee who, at 61, is finally getting the recognition that she has long deserved

Focus Features/Ringer illustration

As we approach the Academy Awards on March 4, conventional wisdom and conversation will most likely focus on Oscar front-runners like The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. So in our recurring column Make the Case, The Ringer will focus on the less heralded—but possibly more deserving—Oscar nominees.


Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is a movie about a genius—no, not the character played by Daniel Day-Lewis. He plays the almost-genius, an elite London-based dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock whose work gets thrown off its axis when a woman he meets, Alma, complicates his life with her love. That’s the movie’s logline; typical for Anderson, the real story is richer, more psychologically calamitous and darkly funny than could be predicted from the outset. It’s a movie rife with mischief: poisonous mushrooms, Freudian catnip, maternal ghosts, and untold secrets, including those discretely sewn into the lining of each Woodcock dress.

The biggest secret, as fundamental to each garment as the finest stitch, is that there might not be any Woodcock dresses, nor even a House of Woodcock, but for the woman whose job it is to keep the famously temperamental Reynolds happily tame, his breakfasts studiously quiet and free of conflict, his team of hypercompetent seamstresses timely and nimble, and his roster of clients healthy and prestigious. Someone’s got to pay the bills and drum up business around here, to say nothing of dismissing Woodcock’s live-in flames when they go out of fashion. And that someone is Reynolds’s sister, Cyril Woodcock, played with a near-immortal sense of self-possession by the great British actress Lesley Manville.

Cyril, with her quick, neat strides, simple pearls, and classically elegant work attire, is the genius of Phantom Thread, not because she is a great artist (though her taste, held in high esteem by her brother, is impeccable) but, rather, because she knows how to handle one. Reynolds calls her his “old so-and-so,” a funny thing to call one’s manager, which is essentially what Cyril is. When Reynolds whines over taking on an unsavory but rich customer, Cyril pushes him; when Reynolds uncharacteristically ruins a dress, it’s Cyril who gets the women downstairs in order, preparing them to work through the night, chop-chop. And when Reynolds shows up at their country home with his new fling, Alma, and leads her upstairs to the attic for a coy game of dress up, it’s Cyril, you sense, whose indicting gaze ultimately matters most. She appraises her brother’s new find with the skeptical indifference, mixed with a tastemaker’s eye for novelty, of a woman almost certain to outlast her.

Lesley Manville in ‘Phantom Thread’
Lesley Manville as Cyril Woodcock in ‘Phantom Thread’
Focus Features

That’s a lot of power, psychological and otherwise, to imbue in a supporting role. But then Manville—a surprise nominee for Best Actress in a Supporting Role at the upcoming Academy Awards, and a more than deserving winner should she, against the odds, squeak out a win—is a power player. Mostly known to American audiences through her fiery, desperate turns in Mike Leigh films (All or Nothing, Another Year, and others), Manville is having what by all accounts feels like a moment. She has a highly praised role in a great film by a visionary American director, a stage run of Long Day’s Journey Into Night back in London, and is in the second season of her BBC Britcom Mum—and that’s all just this year.

At the Oscars, she’s up against front-runner Allison Janney (I, Tonya), Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird), Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water), and Mary J. Blige (Mudbound). Each performance has its merits; everyone here has a story, if not a neat PR narrative. Blige is the stealth newcomer who impressed audiences with her ability to transform; nearly unrecognizable when stripped of her R&B persona, she became the emotional anchor of her movie. Spencer, meanwhile, has deservingly become a best supporting actress stalwart, with two nominations since winning in 2012, for The Help. Janney and Metcalf are the industry veterans: Both are Emmy winners, and Metcalf won a Tony on top of it. This being each woman’s first Oscar nomination, a win for either would feel somehow overdue.

Manville is overdue, too. At 61, she is enjoying her first Oscar nomination, though her prior work was deserving, too. Her sensationally sad performance as the single, desperate work friend of a gratingly functional middle-class couple in Another Year, from 2010, remains a heartbreaker in part because it was so strangely overlooked by the Academy. (The movie was certainly on the Academy’s radar; Leigh got a nomination for the script.) But the most compelling story behind Manville’s nomination for Phantom Thread is the performance itself. Everything you need to know about Cyril is summed up, by Manville, in the movie’s opening moments, during which the character says almost nothing. It is all a matter of gesture: the way she glides, powerfully but simply, among the rooms of the House of Woodcock, drawing back the curtains and readying the house for the day; the way she gazes across the table at her brother’s outgoing fling, checkmating an opponent who not only doesn’t realize she’s lost, but also hasn’t even realized she’s fighting.

Cyril isn’t in competition with Reynolds’s women; she’ll always be his so-and-so, and also, undoubtedly, a maternal surrogate. (Their mother died when they were young.) But she does see to it that Reynolds’s women prove limited distractions, for both their sakes. Her main stake is in the success of the business and the well-being of her brother. It behooves her, their relationship suggests, to make his artistic output as free-flowing, and thus as profitable, as possible. Her genius, though, is in her spareness, the straight, declarative ease with which she sets the tone for the entire house, guiding Reynolds toward making up his mind or carrying out his wishes with the intimate invisibility that can be afforded only to someone who’s known you your entire life.

It’s an ease, a deceptive simplicity, that describes Manville’s approach to the role, in addition to the role itself. There’s not an ounce of waste in anything Cyril does, nor in what Manville does to conjure her. I would believe you if you told me Manville was nominated purely on the strength of one look: a momentary smirk she gives, straight to the camera, as she’s setting up shop at the start of the film. It is the self-satisfied look of an acknowledged master, a queen in her kingdom. This, after all, is the House of Woodcock—and Cyril is a Woodcock. Reynolds may be the resident talent. But Cyril, as brilliantly brought to life by Manville, is the master of the house.

“I don’t really have to audition in England anymore,” said Manville recently, in a revealing interview with RogerEbert.com. “But if I were going to do a big American film with such a prolific and well-respected director, I would have thought the path to getting the role would have been quite arduous. But no, it was simple.” The path to getting the role of Cyril was, as Manville describes it, unusually straightforward: Anderson gave her a call, gauged her interest, and mailed her the script. She’s at a place in her career when that sort of easy arrangement is more or less the norm while working back home in England—less so for an American production. It makes Anderson’s confidence in her all the more refreshing.

It’s a particular joy to see Manville freed of the kitchen-sink misery of the Mike Leigh universe, not because those roles are less worthwhile, but because they so rarely give her a chance to strut through a movie as if she’s holding the lead actor’s nuts hostage in her purse. It’s a good look on her. While preparing for their respective roles, she and Day-Lewis, who hadn’t ever worked together, got to know each other over the course of six months, mostly by phone. (For me, a Manville/Day-Lewis matchup is as exciting and overdue as Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks hamming it up together in a Spielberg movie, only more so, because Manville and Day-Lewis are much more unpredictable.) “Daniel and I obviously talked a lot in six months, talked things through,” the actress told RogerEbert.com. “We instinctively understood the world that we were talking about. (Not so much the fashion. That’s something that had to be researched.) But the world that these two siblings had grown up in, we knew the feel of it, the smell of it, the essence of it.” In an interview with Gold Derby, Manville goes so far as to describe the siblings as “codependent.”

Phantom Thread is the kind of film to make you want to read pop-psychoanalytic meaning into that codependency, riddled as the movie is with mommy issues on Reynolds’s part and maternal authority on Cyril’s. But what’s fascinating about Manville’s depiction is the micro-drip pace at which she doles out that affection. This, the film tells us, is an unmarried woman whose love is apparently her work. If she has a private life, we don’t see it. If she has friends beyond her brother, we don’t meet them. To hear Cyril say, late in the movie, that she is fond of Alma is a subtle shock—these women spend much of the movie butting heads over who’ll play the primary role in Reynolds’s life. It’s a suggestive conflict. When a doctor greets a “Mrs. Woodcock,” both women answer—a prime example of what a friend calls the film’s “incesty vibes.”

I keep coming back to Cyril’s style, however: tight bun, red (but not ostentatious) nail polish, and simple but distinctive work dresses that clearly distinguish every other woman in the House of Woodcock as her automatic subordinate. All of it gets summarized, echoed, in Manville’s consummate sense of composure, but not with the degree of repression or rigidity the role seems to demand on paper. It’s not coldness, Oedipal jealousy, or lack of inner life: It’s professionalism. Reynolds has a way of doing things; Cyril is protective of that process, as distinct from being a willing collaborator in any of her brother’s excess bullshit. Clearly, she draws a line. Alma, meanwhile, is an unwitting bull in the china shop of the Woodcocks’ tiresome policing of manners. Yet that, we learn, is precisely what attracts Cyril to Alma in the end and makes her fond of the younger woman. In the scene that seems ready-made for Manville’s Oscar reel, Cyril questions her brother’s flippant disregard for Alma’s anxious status in his life:

This’ll go down as the moment Manville says: “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. Understood?” Great line, but what comes before it is even better: a long pause. Reynolds chides her for liking Alma; Manville’s response is to draw the moment out, perfectly poised, coffee practically to her lips, as she considers her position. One of the greatest things an actor can do is make it worthwhile to watch their character think. Manville’s Cyril is a woman who’s always thinking—and always worthy of our attention.

Like Manville herself. “The fact that I’m having such a great career at my age is quite a thing,” she told IndieWire. That shouldn’t be the case, of course, and an Oscar for Manville wouldn’t change that industry tide. But it would cap off an exceptional high point in the actress’s career. “I always knew my life and my career would be a slow burn and it has been,” she told RogerEbert.com. “And I’m very grateful for that. I was never flavor of the month, and why would you want to be? [W]hat happens when the month changes and then you’re not the favorite?” But an actress of Manville’s caliber needn’t worry about going out of fashion—only with convincing Hollywood to keep up with her.