EXCLUSIVE: In what is sure to be one of the prestige titles on sale at Cannes next month, I can reveal that screen heavyweights Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville are to star in upcoming love story Normal People, which is due to get underway in early July on location in Belfast, Northern Ireland. CAA, which packaged the movie, reps domestic distribution, with Bankside Films on board for international sales.

This is one of the buzziest projects of its type from this side of the pond ahead of the Cannes Marché and it features two meaty acting roles which have been flagged by those in the know as potential awards contenders. The project represents an on-screen return to his homeland for Schindler’s List and Michael Collins star Neeson but also to more sensitive drama climes after a lengthy spell of pitting his wits against terrorists and renegades in a slew of often lucrative action movies. Manville is coming off a simmering performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread which earned her Oscar and BAFTA nominations and big small screen performances in BBC comedy Mum, for which she was also BAFTA-nommed, and ITV-Hulu drama Harlots.

Normal People charts the story of a long-married couple, Joan and Tom, who have an accumulated ease and deep tenderness to their relationship but when Joan is unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer, the course of her treatment shines a light on their bond and exposes challenges arising from an uncertain future. Additional casting is underway on the film, which will likely be viewed by buyers as a potential grey-pound breakout.

The drama will be directed by filmmaking duo Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn (Good Vibrations) and is based on a script by Irish playwright Owen McCafferty. Producers are Brian J. Falconer for Out of Orbit, David Holmes for Canderblinks Films and The Wife and Churchill producer Piers Tempest for Tempo Productions. Finance comes from Head Gear Films, Northern Ireland Screen, BFI and Christopher Reynold’s Newcastle-based investment vehicle CR67 Limited. Natascha Wharton for the BFI, Phil Hunt and Compton Ross for Head Gear Films and Stephen Kelliher for Bankside Films will serve as executive producers. Bankside began early discussions on the project at the EFM but are launching in earnest now.

Directors Barros D’Sa and Leyburn, whose 2012 music biopic Good Vibrations scored festival play and a BAFTA nomination, said in statement sent to us, “Normal People takes an extraordinary look at ordinary love. It explores big questions and small moments of human connection with unique wit and warmth and a luminous and unflinching candour. We are thrilled at the prospect of bringing this beautiful, honest and unsentimental story to life with Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville in the starring roles, two of the most remarkable actors working on screen today.”

Kelliher added, “We were immediately captivated by this beautiful love story which is sure to resonate with audiences around the world. We are thrilled to be bringing it to the screen with such a distinguished team both in front of and behind the camera”.

Neeson, who has Steve Mcqueen’s Widows and Studiocanal-backed thriller Hard Powder on the way, is represented by CAA, Lesley Manville by Artist Rights Group, Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn by Independent Talent and Owen McCafferty by The Agency (London) Ltd.