If this is it, if Phantom Thread marks the final act in the celebrated career of Daniel Day-Lewis, then what a way to go out on a high. With a triumphantly compelling performance from Day-Lewis up its sleeve – or rather, beneath its hem – this latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson is a sumptuously intimate experience.
Though unique in his own context, Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a familiar figure of fiction: a perfectionist, control freak and, often, man-child for whom routine is everything: ‘If breakfast isn’t right it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day’. Woodcock is a haute couture designer of dresses in 1950s London who, along with his prim sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), serves the best of the best, with royalty, film stars, heiresses, debutants and socialites parading about his London studio. Still haunted by the death of his mother, Reynolds’ habits include the stitching of messages into the linings of the dresses he designs and the collecting of muses, who are brusquely dispatched once he tires of them.
It is when on retreat to the countryside that Reynolds (‘a confirmed bachelor’) meets his latest muse: audience surrogate Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps). A clumsy waitress in a small town restaurant, Alma succumbs to the advances of Reynolds, accepting his proposition of a date and willingly playing the role of model. The sweeping romance of the fashion world, and looming creative genius of her suitor, can only last so long however and soon Alma is driven to surprising actions in pursuit of winning the heart of her distant beloved.
There is a fairytale quality of the – occasionally bewildering – plot of Phantom Thread that couples perfectly with a gorgeous score from Jonny Greenwood. With more than a hint of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes at work here, Greenwood’s orchestration transforms the film into a ballet reminiscent of the staging in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. It harks even to the days of silent cinema and the effect is spellbinding, proposing Phantom Thread as the Sugar Plum fairy to Swan Lake’s Rothbart. It is the antithesis of Darren Aronofsky’s traumatic Black Swan. Except, like all the best fairytales (as originally crafted by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson), beneath the beauty one finds the beast and a darker underbelly.
Spite and wit go hand in hand in Anderson’s script, which is certainly his funniest since Punch Drunk Love. ‘You have an ideal shape,’ Cyril tells Alma, ‘he likes a little tummy.’ Without a cinematographer credit here (Anderson’s favoured Robert Elswit being unavailable), the finish of Phantom Thread is the result of collaboration. That said, all the hallmarks of a Paul Thomas Anderson film are here and belie his dominant influence. From start to end, quietly stunning shots fill the screen and flatter the story. Early on there is a shot of Woodcock’s sewing ladies having their coats up upon arrival at work; it’s a mundane instant that is perhaps the most intelligent of the film, with their arms and movements subtly mimicking the actions a loom. Divine.
Phantom Thread may belong to Day-Lewis, who excels with an intricate accent, delivered in a measured performance, but all three of the key players here (Manville and Krieps included) are on top form. As a trio, with a peculiar dynamic, they make for a fascinating watch in spite of a longer runtime.
Phantom Thread oozes quality in its production, offering a dramatically satisfying and challenging tale to boot. Experiencing the film is one of such intimacy that, for all the world around, you are as good as alone with it in the auditorium.