I want to preface this review by saying that I honestly do not know how to review Phantom Thread after one sitting. This doesn’t mean that I disliked the film; in fact, I thought it was great. However, I feel after one viewing I have only digested and understood one third of what this film has to offer.
Paul Thomas Anderson has set his latest Oscar nominated film during 1950s London, a first time for the renowned director. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock (what a name), a celebrated dressmaker who harbours a strong creative obsession, control issues, and an oedipal complex. After the expulsion of his current muse and a quick trip away, he meets the waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps), his new experiment. At first, the film seems to be the typical story of a male dominated relationship, but soon Phantom Thread develops into an exploration of gender politics and the balance of power.
Reynolds Woodcock is a brilliant final performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, who expertly weaves between charming and obnoxious, obsessive and vulnerable, without it ever feeling forced. Unlike his brilliant Oscar winning turn as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, it’s a very quiet performance; however, even with his softly spoken voice and wafting physicality, Day-Lewis still channels a fierce intensity and control in Reynolds. This is particularly evident in his puppeteering of Alma in their first moments, where he wipes off her lipstick and claims it’s his job to make her more curvaceous if he so wishes.
Although Alma could have been so easily consumed by Reynolds Woodcock, Anderson is much more interested in creating a conflict between the characters. A key reason why this works is due to Vicky Kreips’ wonderful performance. A relevant newcomer to British film, she brings great sensitivity and strength to the role; it’s fascinating to see her hold her ground against the powerhouse of Day-Lewis. It is a shame that though the two performances helped elevate the other, Day-Lewis has received a Best Actor nomination while Krieps has been pushed to the sidelines. I can’t help but think she should have received the space given to Meryl Streep.
Lesley Manville brings a measured warmth to the Cyril, a role that could have so easily been a caricature Mrs Danvers figure. Manville is brilliantly subtle with her expressions, displaying annoyance with a simple push back of her hair, or her affection for Alma with a slight smile in her eyes. How these three actors express so much with so little is truly extraordinary. You may see the film to witness Day-Lewis’ brilliant retiring performance, but you will leave thinking more about it’s leading ladies.
Alongside the acting, the film’s visuals are also brilliant. Jonny Greenwood’s wonderfully alluring score and the film’s cinematography – shot by Anderson himself – with long tracking shots and lingering close ups of Reynolds’ work, all create a sense of romance. Yet, they simultaneously create a claustrophobia and an ominous atmosphere, foreboding the relationship tensions to come.
It is Mark Bridges’ amazing costume design which truly stands out. His elegant designs feel fashionable yet wonderfully classic as they stay true to the post-war era setting, where British fashion had yet to enter its postmodern phase. I urge you to play ‘what was your favourite dress?’ with your film-viewing companion, particularly if they really don’t want to. Mine was the incredibly beautiful Lavender gown adorned with 17th Century Flemish Lace.
What I found most surprising about Phantom Thread was how witty it is. Often when I think of Paul Thomas Anderson I remember his masterful dramatic sequence, but I regularly forget how effortlessly funny his writing is. It just shows how much genre labels can impact our reaction to a film, as I felt the audience I was seeing it with felt tentative about laughing at Phantom Thread, as it is supposedly a serious period romance. In particular, Anderson seems to have a fondness for food based humour. Reynolds’ somehow slightly sexy mammoth breakfast order, and an ambush involving asparagus cooked in butter not oil, were particular highlights of the film.
On re-watch, my thoughts on Phantom Thread may completely change. I could suddenly hate it or I could perceive much more on second viewing and firmly believe it is a classic. The uncertainty of my next viewing is such an exciting prospect, and it is a main reason why I believe Paul Thomas Anderson is such a masterful film-maker. His films take time. But for now, Phantom Thread is simply a brilliant film which is definitely worth celebrating.
– Tara Jennett
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