1950s London, an elite fashion house and an intriguing relationship between a famous dressmaker and his latest paramour. This is the set up to the latest Paul Thomas Anderson film and what has been announced as the final film in the illustrious career of its leading man, Daniel Day-Lewis. Given the latter fact, as well as this marking a re-connection of the director/actor collaborators behind the award winning There Will Be Blood (2007), it’s understandable why there has been such anticipation and discussion of this film from its announcement to its release. On paper, it’s a critic’s dream, and thankfully, it’s every bit the intriguing, slowly unwinding, delicately crafted film that could have been expected.
Daniel Day-Lewis takes on the obsessively focused and detail oriented, genius fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock. Working in the most upscale surroundings, for the highest ranking clients, in the heart of upmarket 1950s London, Reynolds is an intense, slightly odd and highly demanding man. Then he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), working as a waitress, and he whisks her away from that life and into his entirely different high maintenance, precision world. At first she is included into his creative process, but as she begins to see his selfish focus and ridiculously demanding way of working, a wedge grows between them. Not wanting to give him up, she is forced into bizarre and extreme measures to win back his affection and begin to re-shape both their curious relationship as well as him as a husband.
Phantom Thread is every bit as delicately crafted as any of Reynolds’ dresses, beautifully shot with each frame carefully thought out with a degree of photographic perfection. The editorial style mirrors Reynolds’ mindset perfectly, every detail thought out, structured and framed with a consciousness of the minute details. Reynolds is an obsessive compulsive creator, and Paul Thomas Anderson has designed a film which appears as if it could have come out of Reynolds’ mind.
Further to the look of the film, Anderson once again combines with frequent collaborator, Jonny Greenwood to develop a score that compliments the precision of the film’s aesthetic. Having worked with Anderson on There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012) and Inherent Vice (2014), Greenwood understands Anderson’s filmmaking and is able to compose scores that prove to be acute accompaniments to the characters and their narratives. Greenwood composes beautifully introspective scores, music that blends with these characters and their ideas and thinking. It’s a partnership which has led to the development of some stunning modern film compositions, and that is further continued with Greenwood’s award winning/nominated stripped back, piano led original score here.
For the success of any film as character-centric as this, the importance of the actors you cast is crucial, and there could be no more assured actor to take on the complex, neurotic character of Reynolds than Daniel Day-Lewis. Over the course of 3 decades he has put in some of cinema’s finest acting performances, garnering much critical acclaim and numerous awards and nominations. There is something magnetic about his performances, he commands an audience’s attention like very few actors can, just with the smallest details of his performances. As Reynolds, he is captivating; his presence dominates the film, even during the infrequent scenes he doesn’t appear in. From his precise manner of speaking, to his harsh words, and cutting ripostes he is continually fascinating to observe.
Ultimately, that’s what this performance feels like: an observation. We bear witness to a master at work, both the character and the actor portraying him. Daniel Day-Lewis has become known for his highly selective choice of roles, choosing very specific occasional roles over quantity of roles, and he is clearly fascinated by truly engaging characters that challenge his acting in different ways. He has a need to fully inhabit his characters, and so only the most intriguing will suffice.
It’s a mark of a remarkable actor to work for the quality of character rather than a large output of roles. The effect of his process is that, once he has decided that he is taking a role, we automatically know that it must be an interesting character and film at the very least. His films subsequently become events inasmuch as people are genuinely intrigued by any role that piques his discerning mind. And huge credit must go to Paul Thomas Anderson for Day-Lewis to have chosen to work with him more than once, it’s the sign of a hugely talented director that has an equally discerning eye and writing ability to offer those roles.
Daniel Day-Lewis may be outstanding in his performance in Phantom Thread, but his character’s story and narrative is only made all the more fascinating by the characters that share his space, and interact with him. In that regard, Vicky Krieps’ performance as his new companion and muse, Alma is of equal significance. Reynolds has a strange relationship with women and an almost Oedipal fixation on his mother, to such a degree that no women ever achieve the status of a true confidant for an extended period of time. Alma however, permeates his world more than any previous woman and challenges him like no woman before.
Krieps imbues her character with a quietly determined resolve to not be so chastened by this man she so deeply falls for. There is an almost Shakespearian dramatic aspect to their strange relationship; there is jealousy, vengeance and a mean-spirited undercurrent throughout and yet woven into all of that is a genuine love. They’re relationship is structured of numerous layers, and Krieps and Day-Lewis combine to present those complexities.
Their chemistry is perhaps more key here than in any film about love or romance, because their relationship is so different to the expected romantic narrative. There is romance here undoubtedly, but also mistrust and at times active dislike. The authenticity of their multi-faceted relationship is built upon the intimate chemistry that the two leads form and it’s the key to the captivating nature of the on-screen couple’s interactions.
But perhaps the more inconspicuous lynchpin to this relationship is in the character of Cyril (Lesley Manville), Reynolds’ sister and business partner. Her almost matriarchal presence in Reynolds’ everyday life as a form of advisor is integral to keeping Reynolds’ focus. Her careful structuring of the purity of his almost autistic requirements for his creative process breed his success. That success is built on very fine and delicate foundations, and Cyril is all too aware of this and forced to structure Reynolds’ routines accordingly.
Lesley Manville takes on this role of his very literal support and gives it a direct, blunt forcefulness, something Reynolds requires greatly. When Alma becomes the only other character who is able to command Reynolds’ attention in quite the same manner, the two develop a strange understanding built on mistrust and rivalry that softens into a common agreement of Reynolds’ unique needs. Manville’s success is in making Cyril a notable presence throughout the film as Reynolds’ point of constancy, without being an overt or constant presence.
Phantom Thread is a difficult film to describe, it is a slow, introspective, delicately crafted story, and it can be a difficult watch at times trying to understand the motivations of the characters we are introduced to. There are a myriad of emotions and complexities taking place within individual characters and how they interact with other here, and the film requires your undivided attention to begin to understand them. Every detail is important in this film, every little glance or small movement could mean something about that character’s thoughts and impulses.
Phantom Thread is a film of subtlety, and it is magnetising in how it draws you in to its small, neat almost claustrophobic world. The effect is an intensity that isn’t immediately apparent on the surface of things, but it’s present throughout, gently simmering. Looking at Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous work, this really feels most closely related to The Master, in its introverted look into the heart of a cult leader and a conflicted follower. In many ways Reynolds’ world is one of a cult leader; he has a domain he rules over and his way is the law, only his cult is fashion and his designs, not religion. The two films could be viewed in conjunction as a pair of fascinating character studies, but also as a study of immersive acting and precise direction.
This was always likely to be a film that would divide critical discussion somewhat. It is both a beautiful piece of filmmaking, but equally a film that can be seen as the kind of slightly elitist, artisan filmmaking that proliferates during the annual awards season. The latter isn’t a criticism for me, however it does often cause divisions amongst filmgoers and critics alike. In my mind, it is a remarkably well assembled film, and as a final performance – if indeed it proves to be – it is a worthy career eulogy for the remarkable acting talent Daniel Day-Lewis.