Warning; May contain some spoilers
The world of fashion is, by its very nature, a thing of beauty and elegance, which also perfectly describes “Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest masterpiece.
Set in the world of 1950s London haute couture, the film revolves around Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, a celebrated designer with a high society clientele. He is as fastidious about his appearance as he is about the exquisite gowns he shows in the rooms of his five-story residence/workshop.
Reynolds is the master of his domain. The team of seamstresses, all clad in white coats, defer to him and the whole operation is run with cool, tight-lipped, regimented efficiency by his sister, Cyril, played by Lesley Manville. The entire operation is staged to coddle the brooding genius, it seems.
One morning at breakfast, his current paramour, Johanna, offers him an iced bun, which, of course, it simply unacceptable. It is not routine, and he loses his appetite, ruining his entire day. Later, Cyril says she will talk to the girl and, voila, she is seen no more.
Exhausted after a show, Reynolds drives down to the coast arriving in time for breakfast at a hotel. He spies the seemingly awkward waitress Alma, played by Vicky Krieps. His order is extremely specific: “Welsh rabbit with a poached egg; bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam (not strawberry); a pot of Lapsang souchong — and some sausages.” Then he asks her if she would have dinner with him. Such is the meet-cute of this unconventional romance.
Reynolds takes Alma back to his cottage where he makes her a dress. Despite Reynolds’ all-business demeanor, there is an erotic undercurrent to the scene as he measures her and gently calls out the numbers for Cyril, who has just arrived, to write down. Alma and Cyril eye each other warily, and Alma blushes as though she has been caught in some intimate moment.
Alma travels back to London and becomes Woodcock’s muse and model. However, the pair are rarely alone. Reynolds and Cyril breakfast together daily in near silence as he obsessively draws in his notebook. The film’s third breakfast is comical, as Alma disturbs the morning’s peace by, of all things, spreading marmalade on her toast. The sounds of knife, plate and toast are amplified as we see Woodcock wince at the disruption.
But Alma does not go the way of Johanna. She is made of sterner stuff.
For much of “Phantom Thread,” it seems to be a typical example of “Toxic Masculinity” with a dominating genius who expects everyone to bow to his whims. But who really has the power in the house? And to what lengths will Alma go to keep the relationship?
Reynolds, for all his dominance, is defined by the women in his life. He himself is dominated by the ghostly memory of his mother. As a child he designed the dress for the her second marriage with help from Cyril, and he has a lock of her hair sewn into his jacket.
He tells Alma, “You can sew almost anything into the canvas of a coat. When I was a boy I started to hide things in the linings of the garments, things that only I knew were there, secrets.” The film deals very much with secret thoughts.
For all its seriousness, “Phantom Thread” is also quite funny. The dialogue is crisp and there are moments of banter between characters that are both witty and caustic.
This film is a slow burn in the best possible way, with Anderson constructing it with the same delicate precision that Reynolds constructs his dresses. As well as directing and writing, Anderson also worked closely with the cinematographers when his usual crew was unavailable, and the film is visually stunning.
Day-Lewis is magnificent. He is as far from his previous Oscar winning roles — Christy Brown in “My Left Foot,” the eponymous president in “Lincoln,” and Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood” — as it is possible to get, yet he smolders and broods with tight-lipped, dapper restraint. Nobody can say more with a simple curl of the lip or a gently-arched eyebrow. If this, as he has said, is his last film, then he can be satisfied that he is leaving at the top of his game.
Kriep is given short shrift by not getting an Oscar nomination. The young actress from Luxembourg is wonderful as she shifts from innocent waitress to wife and muse. It takes some doing to wrestle attention from such a legend as Day-Lewis, but she is every bit his equal. Look for good things from her in the future.
Manville is up for best supporting actor and it is well-deserved. A stalwart of English film it is good to see her getting wider acclaim. As Woodcock’s older sister she knows exactly when to assert herself, leaving him looking like a scolded child.
Jonny Greenwood’s score is stunningly beautiful. It is perfectly paced for the film and one could listen to it all day.
“Phantom Thread” has perfectly captured the essence of the creative process from Reynolds’ detached intensity as a collection comes together to the sullen deflation once it is completed. It is a cycle familiar to many of us in the arts.
The hardest thing about writing reviews is avoiding spoilers when, especially in the case of this film, the only thing one wants to do is talk about “that moment,” or “what about?” and I look forward to more detailed conversations about this wonderful movie.
Like the secret messages Reynolds sews into his garments, “Phantom Thread” weaves an intricate story full of surprises.