Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Running Time: 130 mins
Synopsis: It is 1950s London. Reynolds Woodcock (Lewis) is one of the finest dressmakers in England. Him and his sister Cyril (Manville) routinely meeting movie stars, royalty and socialites as they fashion one of a kind dresses. A detailed, carefully tailored man, confirmed bachelor Woodcock is content with the women who briefly cross his path offering companionship and inspiration. Until he meets the vibrant strong willed Alma (Krieps) who disrupts his world with the one thing he thought beyond him, love.
I think many were taken by surprise when in a 2012 interview for The Hollywood Reporter, famed auteur Paul Thomas Anderson spoke of his desire to direct a film akin to Airplane or Ted. Declaring, matter of factly, that both were “fuckin funny” films. To most this would seem highly surprising, but if we just stepped back and looked for a moment there has always been a comedic side on the fringes of all his work. Boogie Nights had it’s debauched sense of anarchy, Inherent Vice stoked the embers of farce with its drug addled lead character, even the casting of Adam Sandler as a sadsack in the underrated Punch-Drunk Love was a barely concealed tribute to his love for Sandler’s Big Daddy. Now we have Phantom Thread which in an unlikely twist is Anderson’s version of a screwball comedy.
It depicts the ebb and flow of two very distinct personalities, aping a sort of Howard Hawks vibe with its witty asides and cutting put downs. However Anderson has married it to themes far deeper than mere comedic banter. His direction immensely unpredictable whilst displaying that usual extremely confident control. Reynolds Woodcock (love that name) is a well-regarded tightly wound costumier, dominating the 1950s London fashion scene with his luscious gowns. Of course when hob-nobbing with the creme de la creme and being a confirmed bachelor he has his pick of eligible women to lavish attention on. Much to the chagrin of his ‘extremely’ devoted sister Cyril. A bitter looking scarily acerbic woman, played by Lesley Manville with a barely contained hunger. Her and Woodcock are inseparable, him routinely crying out for her, and her subtly advising him to bin off these women with barely hidden jealousy. In some respects Anderson could’ve gone full Gothic (for which he does later on) and added an incestuous element into the mix, but it appears this is nothing more than a overly familiar sibling relationship. A consequence of a much beloved mother dying years before, a shadow that hangs quietly over both of them (this is one of 3 Oscar nominated films this year to tackle mother issues). Cyril almost pities the girls who come into Woodcock’s wake, knowing full well that they can never pierce the heart of a man so riddled with eccentricities.
None, that is, until the arrival of waitress Alma into Woodcock’s life. A delicate peacock of a woman, introduced to him stumbling about with a shyness that charms him immediately. Vicky Krieps is a true find as Alma, the debut actress more than matching a formidable Daniel Day-Lewis with a performance of unexpected depths. Her never discussed foreignness (Krieps hails from Luxembourg) given Alma a mysterious allure, whilst a playful cheeky edge masks deep rivers of strength. Their early courtship is quietly built but no less palpable, Anderson coyly hiding a physical side to their relationship in order to strengthen the intellectual and emotional battle between them. It is in the numerous dress fittings where the two of them unleash an unexpected lust for one another. The first instance of Woodcock admiring, measuring and tightening her slim body is akin to a sexual act. Her giddily excited at his intense observations, and he overjoyed at finding a body that so conforms to his elegant designs.
Underneath it all though is a wicked twist of deep seated anger towards each other that slowly builds as the film progresses. You see Reynolds is a man prone to childish outbursts, loving gestures and passive aggressive diatribes. The loss of his mother seemingly reverting him to an adolescent state, when only his perfectionist pursuit of beautiful outfits offering some sense of adult purpose. An instance of Woodcock doubling over in depression and sickness leaving him a needy tender man-baby, but one that gives Alma the compassion and care she sorely craves from him. Where this leads is fantastically trashy, Anderson reaching into Gothic macabre featuring ghosts, poisonings and suspicion. The fact it still works within the confines of the measured whole is testament to his skills as a filmmaker, not to mention folding it in amidst the brutal comedic one liners that dominate most of Day-Lewis’s role.
Although deserving to be remembered for being so much more, Phantom Thread will no doubt stick in film lovers minds for being the final screen appearance for Day-Lewis. The actor has apparently retired, and whilst I hope this isn’t true (very few actors have the ability to so inhabit a character than he) he couldn’t have asked for better as a swansong. Woodcock is a devilishly complex individual, softly spoken, intricately detailed in his work but barely able to formulate mature responses to grown up situations. Treating a surprise dinner by Alma as an ambush or aggrieved by breakfast table noise he is a sometimes intolerable fellow, yet one we grow to genuinely care for. Their one-two verbal battles lacerating but feeling all too real. I’m sure most couples will watch this and see something of the pettiness that can rise up in a long term relationship. Day-Lewis has always fascinated me as an actor, you always pick up on so many little touches and details that he uses to fully create a living breathing person.
It certainly helps that Anderson does not let him down. Phantom Thread is utterly ravishing to behold. Costume work second to none (to be fair I’d be a bit worried if a film about fashion had poor design work), sets lavishly detailed and cinematography that feels natural and earthy. All this is backed up by a hauntingly playful score by Johnny Greenwood, following up his superlative work on There will be Blood with another unusual primal soundtrack. Through it all Anderson’s eye remains ever focused, despite a rather uncomfortable running time and a saggy mid-section, there is an engrossing grace to the film which is truly beguiling. What I find so bold with it is that the film is basically boiled down to a series of mealtime sequences, whether breakfast or dinner, that constantly evolve and shape the course of this volatile relationship. Anderson seemingly finding a predilection for food that veers this closer to food porn than you’d probably expect. It is another unique grace note in a film full of them. I left with the knowledge that I’d seen an evocative 4 star film, but over the last few days I’ve replayed moments in my head that I long to see again. It is another masterpiece for a director who seems incapable of making anything less. Now where’s that Naked Gun sequel?!
Verdict: Rapturous, wickedly scathing, and controlled with a beguiling focus, Phantom Thread is a remarkable send off for an actor who will easily be counted among the very greatest. Yet Kreips and Manville more than match him. A bountiful masterpiece.