Director: Paul Thomas Anderson Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville Running Time: 130 minutes
Throughout his long and acclaimed career, Daniel Day-Lewis has embodied personalities that burst forth from the screen, simply too powerful, or imposing, or strong of will to be restrained by mere celluloid and silver. From Christy Brown to Daniel Plainview to Abraham-by-God-Lincoln, DDL has method acted his way through dominating characters, willing audiences into awe, the most impressive man in the room when he isn’t really in it. In his supposed last performance, as the wonderfully and ludicrously named Reynolds Woodcock, DDL applies that same level of performance and applies it to a fussy dressmaker in the immaculate fashion scene of 1950s London. Working once again with Paul Thomas Anderson, the pair have taken what may seem at first glance to be an understated love story and intricately sown some of their best work just underneath the surface, a beautiful piece of work with as many hidden thrills as anything their fascinating main character himself might design.
The stakes at play in the everyday life of Reynolds Woodcock might not be quite as high as the life or death, noble struggles or operatic power plays of of other Daniel Day-Lewis characters. But to him they are. A dressmaker to the rich and famous, Reynolds’ is an obsessive, perfectionist and singularly-focused; to the routinely cold dismissal of the women he dates. Wedding dresses for literal royalty after all require everything to be just-so, and Reynolds cannot work (or, an important distinction to all anal retentive types) simply cannot work unless his own life is just the same. Only his sister Cyril, the George Martin to his dress-designing-one-man-Beatles seems willing and able to keep him out of his narks, but as involved and co-dependent as their relationship is, it seems that the House Woodcock needs a muse in it to for run as smoothly as possible. So not long after Cyril has finished clearing out the last naive young woman who fell into her brother’s fawn-fuck-forget cycle, Reynolds finds himself on a retreat in the countryside, taking a fancy to the waitress serving him breakfast, the seemingly innocent foreigner Alma. Romance ensues. And the fascinating, wonderful thing about Phantom Thread is how not here for this Flawed Hero Alma is. Reynolds is driven, charismatic, handsome and wealthy, he sweeps her off her feet, out of a service job and into the lap of luxury. There’s plenty of reasons for Alma to fall for Reynolds, but he comes laden with plenty of baggage. He’s needy, moody, dismissive and his weirdo sister is always hanging around with the metaphorical dustpan and broom, ready to sweep Alma aside for the next ingenue. Love is a battlefield, and though Alma didn’t start this fight, she can finish it, by playing dirty if necessary.
The carefully poised powerplay shows three fantastic acting performances crashing into each other, restrained as can be but with passion and determination bubbling furiously just under the surface. Except when it boils over. Day-Lewis deserves plaudits for his work, but he’s matched at every turn by his co-stars. As Alma, Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps holds the screen exceptionally with her famous co-star. She’s warm but forceful, and draws out the subtlety from the sometimes scenery-chewing DDL; digging her heels in with this tug-of-war to determine the dynamic of their relationship., Alma, for all the aforementioned qualities Reynolds has, is drawn to his vulnerability more than anything, and wants to bring it out at any cost. All Strong Men are perhaps weak underneath it all, particularly on film, and the best part of Day-Lewis’ performance is how he brings that side out. Capably supporting the central pair, Lesley Manville is understated but incredible as Cyril, the sister who has put too much work into this dress-making empire to take a back seat in it.
Considering his career arc, its impressive just how restrained Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction is here. technically perfect, precisely arranged images, letting Krieps and DDL dominate the frame during their clashes. The film goes from sexually-charged to high drama to dry comedy and back again seamlessly, every interaction between the characters essential in driving the story forwards and always revealing about the characters themselves. It’s hard not to read Phantom Thread as the director’s mea culpa for his own tortured artist routine, but compare this to the showy self-congratulating self-flagellation of mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s “I admit I’m a bad person that’s the same thing as trying to be a good person, can we stop going to couples therapy now?” routine. It breaks down the chauvinistic concept of the ‘muse’, a lie about inspiration by men who want women to tell them how brilliant they are, and legitimately puts it in the hand of the woman, a drawn-out, ongoing, fascinating tussle. It’s quite a shame to see the film somewhat slipping under audience radars at a time when Fifty Shades Freed is playing on every screen. In many ways, this is what Fifty Shades movies would be like if they were actually good; a sexy, romantic, dangerous story to slip into. From the design of the clothes to Johnny Greenwood’s rich score to those masterful performances, Phantom Thread is the sort of film where everything that it can do well, it does do well. An enriching, engaging, essential experience.(5 / 5)