Phantom Thread is a surprisingly funny and poignant romance with stellar performances by Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, and, in particular, Vicky Krieps.
I could listen to Daniel Day-Lewis order breakfast all day. In what is supposedly his final film performance, the three-time Oscar winner plays a role that encapsulates what makes him one of the greatest actors to have ever lived. Day-Lewis has always been attracted to roles of difficult and complicated men. Take his Oscar-winning turns in There Will Be Blood or Gangs of New York. He played men consumed by their passions. Often losing their humanity to them. As Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned fashion designer working in the couture world of 1950s London, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, he plays yet another difficult man, though a quieter one than his past roles. However, Mr. Woodcock, as he’s often called, is not only consumed by his passion for dressmaking. He’s obsessed with it. He believes that his artistry and genius is more meaningful than the pleasantries of society, which is why he often doesn’t participate in them.
Woodcock and his sister, and business partner, Cyril (Lesley Manville, lovely here) understand each other to the point where most of their conversations could happen without words if they needed. In particular, Cyril understands what her brother needs to successfully pursue his work — silence during breakfast, strict adherence to his schedule. So, when he takes a liking to Alma (Vicky Krieps), Cyril believes that she’s just another woman who will act as his muse for a period of time before Reynolds is more distracted by her presence than inspired and is eventually dumped, usually by Cyril herself. But Alma is different. Unlike past women in Reynolds’ life who strive to please him, Alma isn’t just happy being subservient. She has wants and desires too. Which is why this unconventional love story almost feels like a battle between two titans than a waltz between lovers. Eventually, Reynolds invites Alma to live with him in his and his sister’s house — it doubles as his workspace — which, as the description for the film says, disrupts his carefully tailored life.
What caught me most off guard is that Phantom Thread, more than any other of Anderson’s other movies, is incredibly funny. Though Reynolds is a daunting figure often consumed by his own genius — often propelled by the royals passing through his doors — going up against two strong women often leads to incredibly funny exchanges that almost classify this film as a romantic comedy. Still, it’s a captivating character study about a man who thrives in his craft but is nearly destroyed by disorder, which comes in the form of Alma’s presence. Not only that, the film has moments of pure sexual tension that are almost too much to bear. When Reynolds first meets Alma while she is working as a waitress in a restaurant in the countryside, he orders breakfast in one of the most sensual ways possible. But Day-Lewis barely moves his body. It’s all in his subtle intonation. It’s masterful.
As Alma’s presence becomes a threat to the very work he cherishes, he begins to act erratically. After all, he’s an artist. A tortured one that never wants to admit he’s tortured. From there, the movie takes a dark turn, albeit an increasingly intriguing one. The movie turns into a story about love and companionship, but certainly not one to swoon over. Like Mother! and Raw earlier this year, Phantom Thread is about the darker side of marriage — or not marriage, I suppose. The side where you have to give up a piece of yourself to make the relationship work. Both of those movies cover the extremes of it, though the themes in Mother! — the tortured artist and the long-suffering wife — are eerily similar to those in Phantom Thread. But Anderson is such a commanding writer that he is able to spend nearly an hour setting up his characters before thrusting them into the plot.
While the story of this movie is that it is Daniel Day-Lewis’ final performance, the real star of this film is Vicky Krieps and her astounding performance as Alma. She is a full-bodied actor. Even when she’s sitting down she uses her entire body to convey emotion. Even when she simply says “yes,” it has an impact. Alma is a complicated character who experiences a wide-range of emotions. Krieps handles everything Anderson throws at her with a staunch confidence. It’s quite the performance to announce her to the world.
Though the performance and screenplay are certainly motivating factors to the movie’s success, Anderson proves yet again that he’s one of the greatest directors working today by presenting the story with an unrelenting rhythm that gives the audience little time to rest. It’s thrilling to watch with an audience because they become instantly absorbed in the movie’s humor, sexuality, and drama. It’s like a toned down melodrama with actual themes it can comment on. Also essential is Jonny Greenwood’s (of Radiohead fame) magnificent score that is almost never not underscoring the film. It’s whimsical, soaring, foreboding, and a driving force behind the movie’s emotional core.
To try and adequately describe Phantom Thread is a nearly impossible task. It’s about a dress designer in 1950s London, a plain girl turned muse and a partnership that is both constructive and destructive at the same time. And still, that doesn’t even begin to cover it. While this is supposedly the final time we are going to see Daniel Day-Lewis on the silver screen, it also feels like the beginning of Vicky Krieps’ career, which is bound to be great. It’s fitting considering the movie is about one artist on the way down and another on the way up. But I promise you, you will have no idea where this ride takes you.
★★★★½ out of 5