Review by Simon Ramshaw
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson, Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Cert: 15, 130 minutes
Paul Thomas Anderson has never been a filmmaker opposed to evolving his style, even if it is a glacially gradual process. Phantom Thread marks yet another turn in the road after his dreamy stoner mystery Inherent Vice, moving across the world from California’s humid backstreets to the eerie sterility of post-war London. It also marks the first time Anderson has worked without a cinematographer; instead, he and his camera team worked closely together to breathe life into the rigid daily routines of fictional fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, in what is apparently his final performance).
Reynolds is the artistic maestro behind revered London fashion house, the House of Woodcock, ruled over with an iron fist by his razor-sharp older sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, reminding the world what a fantastic performer she is). We enter his world in the dying moments of a relationship with Joanna, the latest in an innumerable stream of muses and lovers. While Cyril severs ties with Joanna with all the air of a mafia boss, Reynolds makes a speedy break for the country, where he immediately bumps into the magnetic, waif-like Alma (rising star Vicky Krieps). The two are drawn to one another; Alma to Reynolds’ commanding charisma, Reynolds to Alma’s modest shyness. But as Alma falls more and more for Reynolds, their uneasy relationship morphs into something far more twisted than either of them could have anticipated.
It all sounds very austere and serious, and you’d be right; this costume drama (with emphasis on the costume) owes a lot of its stakes to Daniel Day-Lewis’ really quite terrifying on-screen presence. But, like There Will Be Blood before it, Anderson shows off his ability to craft a killer line, equal parts funny and painful. Phantom Thread is about exactly that; the balance between pleasure and pain.
I know this is sounding very Fifty Shades right about now, but in a world where screenings will sell out to watch Dakota Johnson breathing heavily to a slowed-down Beyoncé cover, it’s totally refreshing to see a film that balances kink and class in good measure. Essentially a work about a female perspective on the male gaze, it’s a very damning take on an industry that thrives on objectification. “You have no breasts”, Reynolds casually drops into a conversation: “it’s my job to give you them.” The female body is under constant scrutiny and undergoing frequent modification with every stitch Reynolds weaves, and when Alma begins to see the cold, analytical glare that defines her lover’s very nature, the film becomes even more richly textured, both visually and thematically.
Anderson has always been a sumptuous, maximalist director, and Phantom Thread finds him at his most indulgent. This is no bad thing, as it gives him the opportunity to immerse us in the pleasures of Reynolds’ world. A staggering proportion of the film takes place during mealtimes, and there is often tension created or resolutions offered through the very mention of food. Day-Lewis goes the extra mile in pouring love into every syllable; just watch his first encounter with Alma when ordering breakfast (it’s no wonder that she instantly falls for him upon the words “Welsh rarebit”).
There is too much sensory pleasure here to write about in a single review, or absorb in a single viewing. True, Jonny Greenwood’s strange, seductive score is enough to let you sink into the film’s thick atmosphere immediately, but there’s an enticing quality about every scene that makes you want to rewatch each moment again straight away. It’s been less than a week since the time of writing this review, and already Phantom Thread has gotten better each time I’m reminded of it. It seems only fitting that Anderson’s best film in a decade is also a fond farewell to the incredible acting talents of Day-Lewis, and if Phantom Thread proves anything (and it does indeed prove a lot about everybody’s talent), it’s that no one disappears into a character like him. He may well be the eponymous phantom, possessing every character he approaches with unnerving complexity. His otherworldly presence will be sorely missed.