Lesley Manville Returns to 'Phantom Thread' Territory in Mary Harron's 'Dali Land'

Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread

The film will tell the story of the extraordinary partnership between Salvador Dali and his wife Gala.

Lesley Manville is an actor who is beloved by a specific set of film fans but has never been a household name. Her numerous collaborations with Mike Leigh, including Secrets & Lies and Another Year, showcase her keen talent for inhabiting the skins of complex women who cannot be easily summarized, but those films have never been easy for the average moviegoer to find at their local multiplex. Her Oscar-nominated performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is one of the highlights of a film packed with great actors, introducing Manville’s talents to an audience outside of the art house. Now, she’s set to take on a role in a high-profile biopic that plays to her unique strengths as a performer.

As reported by Deadline Hollywood, Manville has been cast in Dali Land, a biopic of artist Salvador Dali co-written and directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page). Ben Kingsley will play Dali while Manville will play Gala, his influential wife. Like many of the best biopics to come out in recent years (Capote, Selma, The Imitation Game), the film zeroes in on a specific period in Dali’s life as opposed to attempting to cover every last detail. Set in 1973, Dali Land will invite us to enter the glamorous and intense art world through the eyes of James (Frank Dillane), a young gallery assistant who is helping Dali prepare for a big show. Hoping to pick the brain of one of the world’s greatest artists, James finds himself entangled in much more intrigue than he had bargained for.

The role of Gala sounds like it will play perfectly to Manville’s increased mainstream popularity following Phantom Thread. Filmgoers who loved her icy turn as Cyril Woodcock, the power behind the throne of her brother, famed fashion designer Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis), will likely see a lot of Cyril in Gala, a Russian intellectual who was a major inspiration to many of the most prominent artists in the Surrealist movement. In addition to being Dali’s muse and the model for several of his pieces, she served as Dali’s business manager and ensured that all details of his day-to-day life were taken care of so that he would be free to paint. Her influence on Dali was so profound that he even took to signing both of their names to some of his works, claiming “it is mostly with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures.”

Yet by the 1970s, when Dali Land is to take place, their partnership was growing strained, with Gala often spending weeks at a time at a castle in Spain where Dali was only allowed to visit if she gave him written permission to do so. In addition, it was in 1973 that Gala began a romantic relationship (one of many extramarital affairs she had throughout her relationship with Dali) with Jeff Fenholt, a singer-actor who starred in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. One imagines that Dali Land will cover all of the complexities inherent in the Dali marriage.

As in Phantom Thread, where it is clear that the fastidious Reynolds Woodcock would not be able to focus on creating his beautiful gowns if it were not for Cyril’s control over the business side of the House of Woodcock (not to mention so many little details of his daily life), so was Gala’s involvement in Dali’s life crucial to his success. Cyril Woodcock is steely and tough and doesn’t often come off as nice, yet in Manville’s hands, the character is no one-note ballbuster but an empathetic, incredible woman who deserves more credit for her brother’s success than she receives. To do Gala justice requires the same human touch. With Harron behind the camera and Manville in the role of Gala, Dali Land will hopefully be an appropriate tribute to this extraordinary figure in art history.

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Director of short films starring a killer toaster, a killer Christmas tree, and a not-killer leopard.