‘I haven’t seen The Master yet. But it’s my favourite movie’, tweeted actor and producer Dan Muario before the release of the 2012 Paul Thomas Anderson film. This tweet is a good barometer for the level of anticipation that precedes an upcoming film from the 47-year-old director. With Phantom Thread, pinning to its lapel the distinction of being the ‘final’ Daniel Day-Lewis film, expectations were high. Phantom Thread is a confusing, odd, dark, sharply funny and gorgeous 130-minute ride. Fans of Anderson will not be disappointed.
It’s London, 1955, and Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) elegantly slips around his pristine Fitzrovia townhouse with sister Cyril (Leslie Manville) and a workforce of seamstresses to produce the gorgeous garments for Europe’s rich and famous. Reynold’s morning grooming – precise. The siblings’ breakfast routine – fastidious. Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps), a somewhere-from-Europe young waitress whom Reynolds seemingly seduces with a gluttonous breakfast order. His muse she becomes, but the punctilious life of the House of Woodcock is sure to change: ‘Perhaps I’m looking for trouble’, Alma suggests.
To say more of the plot would be to reveal unexpected treats, suffice to say that this is very much a love story – an assuredly gothic, darkly funny tale of the love of family, art and companionship. Think Emily Bronte meets Roman Holiday.
Day-Lewis, expectedly, is like you’ve never quite seen him before. Looking more like himself than as There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, Woodcock is a steely, immaculately coiffed moody artist, prone to storming off if one butters their toast too noisily. Daniel Day-Lewis The Great he may be, but it’s his female counterparts, Krieps and Manville, who steal this show. Krieps especially, a virtual unknown, more than holds her own, Alma telling Cyril how she has to ‘love him in my own way’ and withstand Reynolds’, let’s call it, artistic temperament.
Though the most seemingly accessible Anderson film perhaps since Punch-Drunk Love, it gives nothing to you easily or quickly. It deals with that perennial Anderson theme, family, unspooling itself at its leisure to a sumptuous and downright dazzling Jonny Greenwood score, and the film only seems to reveal itself for what it is towards the climax, leaving you guessing throughout.
But it’s Reynolds’ relationship with women – and their relationship with him – that’s mostly directly under the microscope here. He yearns for his deceased mother, is adored by women for making them beautiful, depends on his sister (perhaps more than we see) and becomes infatuated with that waitress in the country. Through his dresses, he has control over his clients’ image and self-esteem. Anderson reflects this control with the most measured camerawork we’ve seen from him. It’s unobtrusive. It’s bright. It’s lingers tightly. And it’s gorgeous. Forgoing a cinematographer, instead working in collaboration with his camera operator and grip, Anderson’s work here is as precise and neat as the threads in Reynolds’ threads.
Another intriguing entry into the Anderson catalogue – and awarded six Academy Award nominations – and a risky date movie, Phantom Thread shows how the director can adapt to new challenges (this being his first film outside of California). But this is a film made glorious by its leading trio, from satisfying expletives – ‘No one gives a tinker’s fucking curse about Mrs Vaughan’s satisfaction’ – to the delectable crunch of a vegetable. If this is Day-Lewis’ final act, let’s hope it’s Krieps’ opening.