There is a wonderful sensation I experience whenever I’m watching a movie made by a first-rate director. Take a filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson whose movies I’m widely mixed on. He is someone who knows his craft and has a firm grasp on how to express his vision. He possesses a clarity of concept and a keen understanding of cinematic storytelling. And even if I’m mixed on whatever movie he is making, I can tell I’m in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing. I adore that feeling.
Then you have the scintillating joy of watching a great actor at work. Someone like Daniel Day-Lewis, another true master of his craft. He and Anderson first came together for “There Will Be Blood”, a modern American classic and a masterclass on the cinematic form both in front of and behind the camera. They team up again for “Phantom Thread” which Day-Lewis has called his final film. The selfish me hopes that isn’t true, but if it is what a fabulous movie to call your last.
Anderson (once again serving as both writer and director) sets his film among the posh fashion culture of 1950s London. The centerpiece is renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) who along with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) has built up a distinguished clientele that includes royalty, heiresses, and various other upper-crusters. Reynolds’ world revolves around his work and he has much more interest in the intricate workings of a fine garment than the rudimentary details of a social life. As with many creative minds, his obsession feeds his genius but it also emotionally isolates him from everyone other than Cyril.
Things take a turn when Reynolds heads to his country cottage for some much needed time away. He meets a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) at a seaside cafe and is instantly captivated. Krieps is an accomplished actress from Luxembourg who conveys a sneaky beauty and subtle style befitting her character. Her Alma makes an unanticipated crack in Reynolds’ hard shell – something this “confirmed bachelor” has trouble understanding or responding to. For instance when she asks “Why are you not married?” he can only respond “I make dresses.” It’s a genuine reaction from someone whose past muses were nothing more than temporary fixtures.
Reynolds brings Alma back to London and takes her into the House of Woodcock. She quickly learns he governs his Victorian townhouse/studio with an aristocratical fervor. Seamstresses and assistants scurry about following his meticulous instructions and Alma is soon part of the machine. Only Cyril (who he affectionately calls “my old so-and-so”) seems outside of Reynolds’ rule. You could say she is his handler and at times his conscience (and Manville is just terrific). She knows what makes him tick.
The film’s trailer sells us an unlikely romance and Anderson certainly offers that. But tension mounts as Alma desires a closer relationship while Reynolds withdraws back into his shell. It’s here that the director tosses us a curveball and his movie takes an unexpected turn. The less said the better, but suffice it to say Anderson’s aim isn’t a frothy conventional love story. He injects a subtle psychological edge with pinches of black comedy and it all plays out in a gloriously beguiling stew.
Equally enchanting is the film’s cinematography said to be a result of a “collaborative effort” due to Anderson favorite Robert Elswit being unavailable. The subtle camera movements can be as elegant as the garments Reynolds creates. Look no further than the opening scene where we are given a visual introduction the House of Woodcock. The camera gracefully moves in tune with the sumptuous piano chords of Jonny Greenwood’s score – up a staircase, back down again all with an intoxicating harmony. There is also a steady flow of exquisitely framed shots that offer much to look at and admire while capturing the film’s shifting moods and tones. And of course Mark Bridges’ incredible costume design that should be winning every award it’s eligible for.
The deeper you get into “Phantom Thread” the more there is to absorb. Shades of Hitchcock can be seen from the more obvious “Rebecca” to the more subtle “Psycho”. There are also those rare moments of humor that come at the most unexpected moments. But at its core is a peculiar romance between a reticent yet domineering man and a woman unwilling to play her part in his game. Watching the stunning Daniel Day-Lewis lose himself in another role and an eye-opening Vicky Krieps is an absolute delight. And despite what we think we know about the three central characters, Anderson turns it all on its head.
“Phantom Thread” reveals a dialed-back Paul Thomas Anderson in top form. His writing is spellbinding. His direction is daring and confident. The look of the film is as beautiful as rare Flemish lace. The performances are sublime. Anderson left me hungry to go back and examine every frame, camera movement, and character expression. And remember that wonderful sensation I spoke of earlier? This move stirred those feelings and reminded me of why movies remain my favorite form of storytelling.
VERDICT – 5 STARS