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Lesley Manville on Mrs Harris Goes To Paris

"I feel absolutely in my prime!"

Lesley Manville talks to Age UK about her hopeful new role, the importance of representation, and what she loves most about getting older.



Star of stage and screen Lesley Manville has never been one to shy away from playing strong, complex women.

In an esteemed career spanning almost 50 years, Lesley has played a number of roles that deal with topics close to Age UK's heart and work. She dazzled as disillusioned divorcee Mary in Mike Leigh’s Another Year (2010), as she tries to overcome loneliness. More recently, in 2019's Ordinary Love, Lesley won critical acclaim for her sensitive portrayal of Joan – a woman navigating a life-changing cancer diagnosis alongside her on-screen husband, Liam Neeson.

LM_4 (500x300).pngAnd while Lesley will be seen on TV screens in November, playing Princess Margaret in the fifth season of The Crown, today she's speaking to Age UK about her latest film: the historical comedy-drama Mrs Harris Goes To Paris, released in cinemas on 30 September.

Based on the 1958 novel of the same name, the film follows Lesley as the kind-hearted Ada Harris – a widowed cleaner in 1950s London who dreams of buying her own Dior dress, and who charmingly transforms the lives of those around her as she strives to achieve her goal.

“It’s a very different type of character from those that I’ve played for a while,” explains Lesley. “I’ve played a lot of fabulous, fabulous women – but women who could bite you rather than save you! So, I thought it was time to play somebody lovely like Mrs Harris.”

However, that’s not to say the character of Mrs Harris isn’t strong-willed and complex too. Lesley adds: “Ada doesn’t sugar-coat anything, and she’s not intimidated by people who are richer or live a different life to her. She’s also hell-bent on telling people when they’re in the wrong. But along the way, she acts as a fairy godmother to so many people without doing anything other than being herself.”

A timely tale

As well as playing the leading role in Mrs Harris Goes To Paris, Lesley also serves as an executive producer. Like many recent cinematic releases, the film's production was heavily impacted by the events of the past two years.

“We were up and running to make the film when the pandemic hit,” says Lesley. “At the beginning I couldn’t see how any film could be made. Fortunately, that whole system got sorted out pretty quickly and we did start to make Mrs Harris in September 2020, but the fact we made the film at all is a small miracle.”

LM_2 (500x300).pngAlthough filming was planned before the pandemic was even on the horizon, does Lesley think that the film’s setting and themes might resonate differently today than they may have two years ago?

“In our story, we’re coming out of a post-war Britain, with all of the austerity that’s commensurate with that,” Lesley points out. “But, of course, we’re clearly in a similar state here now – everybody’s feeling it. Ada’s got this idea of one thing she wants to have to improve her life, and it becomes like a mission for her to get this dress. In a way, I suppose you could think of that now, except people need much more fundamental and practical things – like needing to get the money to pay their energy bill. It’s shockingly grounding at the moment.”

More than anything, Lesley hopes that the film can bring some much-needed joy.

“The film is about escapism, and I think it’s the kind of story we need right now. It’s a lovely film for the time, and we didn’t know that when we set out to make it.”

Lesley Manville

Representing reality

Although the character of Mrs Harris has encountered hard times, she remains determined and, as Lesley notes, “so grounded in who she is”. Despite this, she still faces plenty of prejudice throughout the film as an older, working-class woman.

LM_5 (500x300).png“Ada feels invisible, like a lot of women do now,” Lesley says simply. “I don’t think things have changed that much in that sense. Her male friend dances with much younger women instead of her. Also, we might like to think that we’re no longer snobs and that the class system doesn’t exist, but it does.”

Mrs Harris’ story is fictional, but does Lesley think cinema has a role to play in offering representation to real-life women like Ada, who may have also been made to feel invisible in their daily lives?

“This film is quite different from others that have told stories about women over 50,” says Lesley. “But in terms of older women being represented in my industry, that is definitely shifting. It’s taken way too long, but there is a move in the right direction and there’s a market for it! Not only is it right that these stories should be told, but clearly people are paying money to go see films where they are represented.”

“It's important to show women of my age who are not just defined by being wives and mothers, but by their own sense of themselves and their private missions and goals.”

Lesley Manville

“Also,” Lesley adds emphatically, “this whole notion that you can’t show women being interested in having relationships past a certain age – be it platonic, sexual or whatever – just has to go.”

The benefits of ageing

Talking of debunking stereotypes, Lesley is eager to highlight that, at 66, she feels better than ever.

“I’m lucky enough to have been involved with many projects that deal with women who are refusing to be pigeon-holed, crushed or stereotyped because they’ve reached a certain age,” she says.

“Personally, I feel absolutely in my prime! I wouldn’t want to be 30 again. I’ve got all the gravitas that my decades of living have given me, the certainty of knowing who I am, and the ability to do my job, I think, better than I’ve ever done it.

We get better with age because we’ve had life, we’ve had experience. We get better at our jobs, because we’ve just done them more – and my job in particular is about replicating life, so the more life I’ve had, the more experiences I’ve had, the more of a well of experience that I have to call upon.”

New beginnings

So what words of wisdom would Lesley offer to anyone inspired by Mrs Harris, who might be looking to follow new dreams in later life?

“I think just don’t be scared of it,” she advises. “I think the pandemic has fed people’s decisions to look at their lives and do something different – we all got depressed, we all got low, we all felt stuck. And I think especially if you were retired or thinking of retiring, suddenly life was very isolated and difficult – even if you were in a relationship.

There’s going to be a hundred reasons you could write down as to why you shouldn’t do something, but if there’s one reason you can write down as to why you should, go with the glass half full and go with it.

Just have a go! What’s the worst that could happen? You don’t need to prove anything to the wider world – it’s about proving it to yourself.”

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Last updated: Oct 28 2022

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