The release of a new Paul Thomas Anderson film is always an occasion to mark in the diary of any cinephile, but it would be fair to say that 2017’s Phantom Thread arrived with an extra weight of anticipation and interest on its shoulders. It marks the final feature film in the esteemed, record breaking career of Daniel Day-Lewis, the only male performer in history to have won three Best Actor Academy Awards. The duo’s only previous paired project, 2007’s There Will Be Blood, remains one of my favourite films of the last fifteen years, so to say I was excited about this film is something of an understatement.
Set in the elite fashion world of 1950’s London, Phantom Thread tells the story of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a renowned designer whose creations are sought after by the world’s richest and most famous names. Equal parts genius and obsessive, Woodcock’s controlled, painstakingly scheduled life that he shares with sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) is thrown in to turmoil when he begins a romantic relationship with Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a headstrong, challenging waitress who moves in to the family home as part muse, part live in lover.
It has taken a couple of days for the film to really sink in, but I have come to the conclusion that Phantom Thread is a quite exquisite film. You won’t find the bangs and crashes of a generic thriller here, but what you trade in for pace is an incredibly tense, expertly woven tale of love, obsession, mental illness and co-dependency that will stay with you for days afterwards. The beautiful, clean, precise aesthetic of the picture contrasts perfectly with the inner turmoil of the central players, making the film a stirring combination of being irresistible to the eye and overwhelmingly challenging for the mind. The words delicate and menacing are not ones that are used in conjunction very often, but there is without doubt a thread of delicate menace running through the film that keeps you on the edge of your seat, guessing where this elegant yet intense slow burn is going to take you next. What starts as a potentially traditional love story soon becomes something much more complex, marching further and further towards sinister with every passing minute.
In its simplest form, the plot is another exploration of the ‘what it’s like to live with an artist’ trope, but the layers upon layers that unfold as the narrative progresses turn the film in to a rollercoaster of different emotions and revelations. At hand, I can’t think of a picture that is so quiet and contained but that has so much explosive metaphor and content underneath the surface. Phantom Thread is as controlled and exquisite as one of the fine gowns created by its protagonist, yet the intensity of the unfolding drama that threatens to unravel the lives of the characters feels anything but. Picture an elegant swan, gliding across a serene pond, the epitome of grace yet working hard to stay afloat with beating legs beneath the surface. Now picture that same swan, energy sapping by the second, fighting a losing battle against an unstoppable rushing current. That gives you something of an idea of what Phantom Thread feels like.
It’s no surprise, but Daniel Day-Lewis is exceptional as Reynolds Woodcock. On screen, he is the embodiment of obsessive compulsion, a troubled genius with a charming exterior and more than a hint of toxic masculinity. One moment a charismatic gentleman, the next moment a pathetic, spoiled man child. It takes quite something to carry a film in which the audience cannot automatically see their protagonist as a hero, but Day-Lewis plays the part with such conviction, commitment and unequivocal talent that you can’t help but be captivated regardless of your personal feelings toward the character. It seems as though Gary Oldman is destined to pick up the Best Actor Oscar this year for his admittedly towering performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, but if it were up to me the award would be a close race between Day-Lewis and Timothee Chalamet for his amazing work in Call Me By Your Name. If this does indeed mark the end of his feature film career, then he sure picked a doozy to go out on.
The rest of the film is filled with female performances, all equally excellent. As Alma, Vicky Krieps has the seemingly impossible job of keeping pace with Day-Lewis for most of narrative, but she holds her own and more as a young woman who refuses to be yet another muse who is chewed up and spat out by a tortured artist stereotype. Her performances is a much physical as it is oral, the vision of her draped in Woodcock’s creation just as important as the increasingly resilient language that she uses at the deeper layers of the two character’s relationship start to reveal themselves.
As Cyril Woodcock, Reynolds older, matriarchal sister, Lesley Manville steals every scene in which she appears, and she has a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination to prove it. She carries a delicious tension and intensity in every single action and every single line, an imperious, lingering presence who clearly has more influence over her brother than even he understands. Don’t be fooled in to thinking that her character is an archetypal ‘bitter spinster’, however, as the tentative screen relationship that Manville and Krieps is also an interesting avenue within the film.
Overall, Phantom Thread is an incredible film, one that rewards those who have the patience to settle to its tempo, an exercise in masterful filmmaking complete with masterful performances from everyone involved. I won’t sugar coat it, it isn’t the most accessible film you will ever see, and it certainly won’t be to the tastes of those who favour a more generic, blockbuster sensibility, but at the end of the day I can only speak for myself, and I was completely captivated, hypnotised and eventually horrified from start to finish.