You need to know two things about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. First, this is one of the most exquisitely produced and intelligent films you’ll ever see. Second, a key plot element is, well, bonkers. You’ll need to wrap your head around those apparently conflicting ideas to fully appreciate this film.
Anderson is of course known for his unflinching portraits of difficult, damaged characters. His films like There Will be Blood and The Master are fascinating but merciless. Phantom Thread is no exception. Here however, Anderson’s depiction of a (very) difficult man is counterpointed by a charming woman. But she will turn out to be more than she seems.
It’s London in the early 1950s and Britain is starting to recover from the privations of the Second World War. Fashionable London ladies flock to the House of Woodcock for exquisite bespoke gowns. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) run the enterprise. Reynolds takes care of the clothes; Cyril takes care of the business. As the film opens, Reynolds is in the process of dismissing his latest muse. Cyril suggests Reynolds get away for the weekend. He heads to the seaside. In a quiet town he meets a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps).
Although their initial interaction is brief, there’s clearly something there. Reynolds asks her to dinner. Later that night, he’s dressing (not undressing) her. Alma soon settles into the house (which is literally a house, with the business downstairs and living upstairs). She quickly discovers however that Reynolds is a man of, well, particular needs. These include silence at breakfast and not being interrupted in his work for any reason.
I doubt anyone will find Reynolds a likable – or even relateable – character. In many ways, he’s a dreadful human being. But despite the meticulous detail given to his daily routine, this is not a film about Reynolds. This is a film about Alma. She’s the one the audience is meant to relate to. She’s the agent of change here. Just what she does to effect that change – that’s the bonkers part.
Anderson’s script requires quite a lot from the audience. Much is left unsaid, and unshown. What should be think, for example, of Alma’s past. Anderson drops some hints, but stops short of saying anything outright. Similarly, he drops hints about Reynolds’ sexuality, which are similarly not taken further. And he introduces quite a lot of humour, though it’s often so dark, it may not even register as humour.
The script also injects an almost Hitchcockian sense of dread into Phantom Thread. Anderson does dread well. Here the portent is a little more diffused than in say The Master. While the gloomy Reynolds looms over the story, Alma gives every bit as good as she gets. On the surface, it seems like a case of a controlling (even abusive maybe) man subjugating yet another woman. But Anderson pulls the most audacious of twists to turn everything on its head. I’ve seen this film described as a tale of obsession; but it’s actually far more about power more than it is about obsession. In particular, how power is wielded – and how it can be usurped.
Aside from the story, Phantom Thread is one of the most visually gorgeous films of the year – indeed of any year. The credits don’t list a DOP, suggesting Anderson shot the film himself. It’s also one of the most aurally beautiful, with Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead) providing a ravishing orchestral score. Production designer Mark Tildesley also does an excellent job recreating the era.
For all his towering reputation, Daniel Day-Lewis is matched here in the acting stakes by two remarkable women in Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville. Krieps fires up in the role of Alma. You can sense the passion roiling just under the surface. In contrast, Lesley Manville brings a British stiffness to Cyril that suits the character perfectly. Her eye rolls can challenge those of Dame Judy Dench. Day-Lewis however is excellent as ever as the corseted Reynolds. Although he gets the chance to show his remarkable range, he’s at his very best in the film’s moments of quiet madness.
Like a fine aged cheese, Phantom Thread is a thing of beauty – but it’s not for everyone. Many things about this film will challenge viewers – and many of those viewers will react negatively. But if it hits you in the sweet spot, this could just be the film of the year for you.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Release Date: 1 February 2018
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television