Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest character study follows the strange relationship between Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress, and Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a fashion designer who takes her for a model and a lover. Complicating matters is Woodcock’s extraordinarily erratic behaviour, and Cyril (Lelsey Manville), Woodcock’s sister who keeps a watchful eye over the pair. Alma must decide if she wants to remain in Woodcock’s fashion house and what she is willing to surrender to do so.
There’s something of Daphne Du Maurier in Phantom Thread. The London townhouse where most of the action takes place is haunted by the memory of Woodcock’s mother, driving him to madness. The relationship between the Woodcock and Alma is twisted as both become capable of increasingly bizarre cruelties.
It’s unclear, as you are watching the film, where the narrative is going. I found myself completely unable to predict what was to happen next or even discern what manner of story I was experiencing. However, Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction is so assured and mesmerising that I never worried as to the story’s destination. I was happy to enjoy the strange journey.
Daniel Day Lewis is utterly fascinating in the role. With his tall, slim frame, white hair slicked back and fondness for bow ties he has the appearance of an old-school magician. This extends into his meticulous manner. He speaks softly, even when insulting people. He is incredibly fragile yet seems immovable. The drama of the film comes when something or someone interrupts his heavily regimented routine. He is unpredictable and powerful.
As played by Vicky Krieps, Alma is a fascinating and sinister presence. She is capable of great vulnerability as she initially enters into this strange fashion house, unaware of its rigorous customs. Yet she is solid throughout and has an unbroken will that will disrupt the peace of Woodcock’s life. While Lesley Manville’s portrayal of Cyril, Woodcock’s sister (whom he refers to as his old “so and so”), recalls Mrs Danvers from Rebecca but with the sinister quietness and subtle power of Amy Adam’s performance in The Master. It’s a film of very strong female performances.
Anderson has always excelled at character studies that work as thrillers. Dialogue scenes crackle with the same tension and energy as The Master and There Will Blood. He also occasionally reminds us that he was responsible for the dramatic action of Boogie Nights and Magnolia as characters dynamically move through the environment and cars tear through quiet country lanes.
The setting of 1950s London is beautifully invoked by the nuanced production design, extravagant costume design and the elegant soundtrack by Johnny Greenwood. It’s a very well observed film that avoids the clichés of the time but perfectly summons the sense of a world that has passed.
A film by Paul Thomas Anderson is to be treasured, as is a performance by Daniel Day Lewis (and it seems this may be his last). But the treasures of this film extend beyond these two titanic names. Phantom Thread is a beguiling and provocative film that will lead you by the throat through it’s dark take on a very peculiar romance.
5 / 5