There’s a lot of built in expectation with a film like PHANTOM THREAD. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has, over the course of his eight feature films to date, definitively proved to be one of ‘the voices’ of modern American cinema, blending thematic depth with relative approachability in a way that resonates with (often divergent) critical and popular opinion. Then there’s Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor with as venerable a reputation as Anderson. This is Day-Lewis’s first performance in five years, his last being his (third) Oscar winning performance as the eponymous lead in Steven Spielberg biopic LINCOLN. In fact, PHANTOM THREAD is only the actor’s third role since his ten years previous (also Academy/BAFTA/Globe award winning) collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson in 2007’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD. All this is to say, you walk into PHANTOM THREAD with dangerously high expectations. And I’m happy to say that the filmmakers well and truly come to the party, with a film that presents a masterclass in acting, direction, and cinematography, as well as subverting genre and role expectations in a dramatically satisfying manner.
Set in post-war 1950s London, PHANTOM THREAD begins in familiar territory, outlining the day to day life of Day-Lewis’s ‘tortured’ man-child fashion genius, Reynolds Woodcock – designer of bespoke garments to portions of the English (and pan-European) peerage, and people of their ilk. Upon the completion of a significant design project we can see that his much younger female muse has fallen from favour. On a post-project trip to his country house, Reynolds happens upon a young European waitress, Alma (Luxembourger actress Vicky Krieps), at his local café. The pair quickly become enamoured with each other leading to a significant encounter where Reynolds fits Alma for, then makes for her, a new personally designed dress. From this point on the relationship moves quickly, with Alma packing up her life and moving to London to live with and work for Reynolds – the artiste has found his new muse! Thus far, this all sounds like an expected and, dare I say it, unexciting storyline involving privileged people behaving badly. Even the trailer underwhelmed me, with its apparent depiction of the domineering older male imposing his unreasonable will on the younger woman, but I was right to trust in Anderson.
The film slowly but surely subverts narrative expectations and presents Reynolds with a fierce, indomitable match in Alma, reminiscent of the directive strength of Amy Adams’s Peggy Dodd in Anderson’s THE MASTER (2012). Another parallel with the filmmaker’s previous psychological battle-of-wills film is in the three pronged relational structure. In PHANTOM THREAD Reynolds’ sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) provides the relational countermelody to the central pair. The live-in organiser of the day-today affairs of Reynolds’ house and business, Cyril initially presents as cold and cynical towards Alma, her brother’s ‘new muse’, but Alma works a different kind of magic on Cyril and redefines their relationship. In fact, Alma also ends up enabling Cyril to redefine her own relationship with Reynolds.
Alma proves as manipulative as she does confrontational (cf. Florence Pugh’s equally subversive but less subtle character, Katherine, in William Oldroyd’s LADY MACBETH), to the point where I laughed out loud at some of her masterful trolling of her uncomprehending paramour. Anderson and co present us with a character who will not be cowed by her more situationally powerful lover but rather turns his unreasonable childishness back on him, and ends up gaining control of the narrative in the process. This is Alma’s tale more than it is Reynolds’. Anderson signals this subversion from the very beginning of the film—the film is even bookended by Alma narrating her picture of who Reynolds is to someone—but such is our (or at least my) conditioning, that the earlier clues only become apparent as we get deeper into the film.
Vicky Krieps stands toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis and holds her own. As with THE MASTER, PHANTOM THREAD’s three central performances are all top tier: spirited yet nuanced; with gravitas but not belaboured. The filmmaking is equally thrilling. Anderson decided (though with help, and he consequently refused to credit himself as ‘the cinematographer’) to shoot his own film and the result is a work of provocative beauty. Right from the opening direction-switching sequence on a stairwell, Anderson creates aesthetically intriguing frames and movement, all laden with metaphorical weight. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood supplies his fourth Anderson film score. His compositions are beautifully tailored. Alive with portentous dissonance, yet as elegant and restrained as Reynolds’ garment designs. PHANTOM THREAD delivers on all fronts. This is the kind of dramatic storytelling I hang out to see, that makes cinema-going worthwhile.
Rating: M Offensive language.