Phantom Thread is another hypnotic, elusive dream from Paul Thomas Anderson
Is Paul Thomas Anderson the U.S.’s greatest living filmmaker?. Since the release of his mainstream breakthrough Boogie Nights in 1997, Anderson has released multiple masterpieces, each one completely different from the last. Even his lesser films, like 2014’s messy Inherent Vice, offer great performances and stylish cinematography, whilst his best films, like 2007’s Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood, rank as some of the very best of the decade.
Three years after his last film, Anderson is back with Phantom Thread, a 1950s-set romance chronicling the intense relationship between fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his muse, a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). A self-proclaimed bachelor, Woodcock is fastidious, irritable, and a brilliant dressmaker, passionate about elaborate breakfasts and weary of any disruption to his routine. Living with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), Woodcock is haunted by his mother’s death and clearly needs a strong-willed woman to guide him – even if he refuses to admit so. Into this messy, creative household comes Alma, whose sharp tongue and compassionate ways may just be what Reynolds desires.
From Scorsese-esque ensembles to demented romantic comedies to old-fashioned epics, Anderson is an eclectic filmmaker, and Phantom Thread proves he can pull off a convincing period romance. Acting as his own cinematographer, Anderson’s gorgeously kinetic camerawork brings the 1950s to life whilst conveying the difficult whirlwind romance between Reynolds and Alma. Reminiscent of the classic Merchant Ivory productions of the eighties, Phantom Thread has the look and feel of a traditional period drama, though Anderson’s script is far funnier than its stuffy genre would suggest. Awkward breakfasts, dry sarcasm and some top-notch swearing (“I don’t give a Tinker’s fucking curse about her satisfaction!”) make for crowd-pleasing highlights, even if Phantom Thread defies the audience’s expectations at every turn.
As a character study, the film is fascinating but frustrating; we gain a close look into the lives of Reynolds and Alma as they slowly reveal their wants and needs, yet there’s rarely a strong idea of what makes them tick. Reynolds’ relationship with his “old so and so” Cyril is particularly curious. Is she a mother figure, or are his feelings towards her more complicated? Cyril is the only character capable of battling Reynolds’ inflated ego and sarcastic remarks, but as Almas begins to replace her, Reynolds seems to discover a new desire within himself. Just how willing he is to submit to the women in his life ultimately becomes the story’s emotional centre, but given his stubbornness and refusal to change, it seems Alma’s romantic aspirations might require drastic measures.
While a new Paul Thomas Anderson film is always newsworthy , the bigger story surrounding Phantom Thread is the apparent retirement of its lead, Daniel Day-Lewis. Whether Day-Lewis does retire or not remains to be seen, but if Reynolds Woodcock proves to be his last character, it’s a blinding way to go. Well-spoken and civilised, yet prone to cursing and tantrums, Reynolds is hugely entertaining, attacking every scene with a wicked smile and a cutting remark. Known for his intense method acting and rehearsal time, Day-Lewis’ last role for Anderson (Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood) earned him his second Best Actor Oscar and was perhaps the defining performance of his career. Reynolds Woodcock may be a less iconic character, but Day-Lewis is every bit as outstanding.
Reynolds Woodcock would be nothing without the women in his life; Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville make for terrific adversaries. Manville is great fun whether shutting down Reynolds’ complaints (“Don’t pick a fight with me, you certainly won’t come out alive”) or judging Alma when she first appears in the house (“And who is this lovely creature making the house smell so nice?”). However, Krieps is Phantom Thread’s real standout. Relatively unknown, Krieps holds her own against her intimidating co-stars, creating a sympathetic, morally complex young woman in Alma. Loving and tender even as Reynolds turns cruel, Alma is a fascinating romantic lead and Krieps does her justice. While she was denied an Oscar nomination, Krieps is destined for bigger things in the future.
More than any other film in Anderson’s back catalogue, Phantom Thread most resembles The Master. Leisurely-paced and edited like a half-forgotten memory, both films focus on difficult, often toxic relationships, and depict their stories as pieces and fragments, rather than a plot-driven narrative. The first time I saw The Master, I enjoyed it moment to moment whilst failing to grasp its overall meaning, and Phantom Thread left me the same way as the credits rolled. Upon a rewatch, The Master became one of my favourite films of all time; could Phantom Thread do the same? I can’t wait to see it again.
By Harry J. Ford
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