Lesley Manville: The ‘Topsy – Turvy’ of ‘Another Year’

I’m a character actor. In the United States, that tends to mean old people who play small parts. Here [in the UK] it means anyone who plays people not like them. I love playing women at the far ends of the social scale. I’ve done it all my life; that’s where my ability lies.

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It would never occur to me not to look dreadful if that’s the job description…. Ruth [Sheen] and I [stars of ‘Another Year’] laugh so much when we’re doing question-and-answer sessions with American journalists and they tell us how refreshing it is that our faces move and are expressive [because] we’ve not had a load of botox. We’ve done nothing; these are the only faces we have.

These are quotations (taken out of order) from Lesley Manville in a nice piece in Sunday’s Boston Globe on the skilled British actress. She is co-starring in Mike Leigh’s new film, ‘Another Year’ which opens in Boston on Friday.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing ‘Another Year’, mainly because of a performance Manville gave in another Leigh movie, ‘Topsy – Turvy’ (1999). I’d rank ‘Topsy – Turvy’ at the top of my best films of the 90s.

On the surface, ‘Topsy – Turvy’ is the story of how Gilbert & Sullivan devised one of their greats, ‘The Mikado’. On another, it is the story of two relationships, Sullivan and his mistress, Gilbert and his wife. Manville plays Lucy Gilbert, the wife of W.S. Gilbert (embodied brilliantly by Jim Broadbent also in ‘Another Year’).

For 158 minutes, Lucy appears to be something of a ninny who brings Gilbert in-laws from Hell. But in the film’s final two minutes, she reveals the tragedy of the topsy turvy between the two couples. It is a shattering scene, made all the more so by Broadbent’s stolid but stunned response.

Had I not seen several times those moments in ‘Topsy – Turvy’ (a title with more than one implication), I might have taken Manville’s observation on her performance in ‘Another Year’ as a simple case of actor grandiosity. ‘My skill’, she says, ‘is to take all the universal issues in the film and shove them through the sieve of the character.’

She did it in ‘Topsy – Turvy’. I expect to see her do it again in ‘Another Year’.

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