5 out of 5 stars.
Let me preface my review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film “Phantom Thread” by saying that my thoughts here will likely be incomplete. That is because “Phantom Thread” is the sort of film that will require multiple viewings to fully grasp, with the prior knowledge of where the story and characters are headed allowing more opportunity to soak up the details. But that’s part of the reason why this film is so brilliant and so rich—from costumes to sets to screenplay to cinematography to acting, P.T.A. gives viewers so much to absorb, all bound together in this weirdly wonderful romance.
“Phantom Thread” is set in the realm of 1950s London fashion, centered around famous dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). Reynolds is a bachelor—although we are given the impression that he has muses who come and go—with a set routine and a specific way of working that is not to be changed or interrupted. He both lives and works in his London home along with his sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville) and a host of models and seamstresses. It’s while on a trip to the country that Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress who he is immediately taken with. The attraction is mutual, and Alma returns to London with Reynolds, but their romance and their life together is anything but a fairytale, despite the idyllic world of fashion and high society that constantly surrounds them. Reynolds has a routine; Alma disrupts that routine with her own ideas of what their relationship should be like, which results in friction in their relationship.
I hesitate to call this the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis’ career, considering the career that he has had, but this is certainly a highlight, and if it really is his final film performance, then what a note to go out on. This is his second collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson (Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for Best Actor for 2007’s “There Will be Blood”), and after seeing this film, I’m convinced that no other actor could have done this very layered and very complicated character justice. The film presents us with many reasons to dislike Reynolds: he is dismissive toward anyone who disrupts him for any reason, he refuses to meet Alma halfway in anything, and he is, as she puts it several times, like a spoiled child. And yet it is that childishness that makes him so endearing. Alma, meanwhile, is very strong-willed, and does not cave to his demands, or succumb to depression any time their relationship appears on the edge of falling apart. Krieps takes her character on a journey; when we first meet her, she is tripping clumsily in a restaurant, so it is the most satisfying of surprises to see this kind and curious character able to hold her own against the petulant Reynolds. Lesley Manville rounds out the main trio is superb fashion. She, like Alma, is very strong-willed, but unlike Alma, she is often more respectful of Reynolds’ routine. She is always there, as much a part of their relationship as Alma or Reynolds, and Manville often steals each scene she is in.
The cinematography and haunting beautiful piano score by Jonny Greenwood gives the proceedings an air of mystery and strangeness. There are a lot of dramatic, moody scenes set in small rooms, from Reynolds’ country home to his London quarters. It’s when we leave those rooms that we get the classic, sweeping romantic sequences. On paper, the film sounds dense, but Anderson’s screenplay is actually quite funny, and the cast and crew really enhance that. For instance, one of the things that irks Reynolds is how loud Alma is at breakfast. It’s here that the sound is so much louder than it would normally be, from her scraping butter on toast, to pouring tea, to clanking her dishes (eventually, it becomes obvious that she has started doing this on purpose to annoy him, and that lends an extra layer of humor).
There are likely many ways to interpret “Phantom Thread,” its views on love in particular, but the thing that struck me the most is how Reynolds and Alma try to control each other. Reynolds expects Alma to behave and to do things a certain way. He tries to force her to adapt to his lifestyle and his way of caring for her; if she doesn’t, her love may not be return. In response, Alma does something to allow her to care for Reynolds the way she wants to (it’s wild). It’s not healthy for either of them, physically or mentally, but rather than split up, there is something there holding them together, so they continue to do this, stuck in a cycle that may end, but then again may not.
“Phantom Thread” is a great period drama, and, with its bevy of colorful gowns, a great fashion film. But it’s the unconventional love affair between its two leads that makes it so engrossing to watch unfold, even when you aren’t sure exactly what you’re watching. As I mentioned before, there’s more here than you can take in in just one viewing, but just let the mood and the music and the colors and the dialogue wash over you, and you will surely be swept away.
Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated R.