Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” is set in post-WWII London and centers around an upscale clothing designer named Reynolds Woodcock (played by Daniel-Day Lewis). While Woodcock’s clothing is gorgeous, lush and exquisite, his life has a hermetically sealed quality, as his daily schedule, work habits and tolerance for anyone outside his home is practically locked. Woodcock’s sudden infatuation with Alma, a restaurant server (played by Vicky Krieps), shakes up his routine, as he quickly makes her his go-to model and collaborator. Among the obstacles facing Alma’s newfound love is Cyril (played by Lesley Manville), Woodcock’s personal assistant, who has a tight grip on Woodcock’s attention and her place in his life, with no desire to share him with Alma.
Anderson’s film has narrative echoes of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” and James Ivory’s “Surviving Picasso,” though the film it resembles the most is Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence;” both films are designed to immerse the viewer into their distant worlds, overflow with immaculate period detail and feature central characters who are hard to relate to. “Phantom Thread” is as strange a choice for Anderson as “The Age of Innocence” was for Scorsese (the word “strange” certainly applies to Anderson’s film overall) but both are defiantly outside-the-box and worthy additions to their body of work.
At the most basic level, Anderson is expecting his audience to bask in Day-Lewis’s deeply nuanced, impressively controlled and richly entertaining performance. On that level alone, “Phantom Thread” provides a master class in acting, as well as filmmaking and unpredictable and carefully structured storytelling. If you’re not a fan of Day-Lewis’ work or find Anderson’s movies to be off-putting, this won’t win you over. On the other hand, if you consider yourself an adventurous moviegoer, delight in having an altogether new experience in a movie theater and can be patient with Anderson’s deliberate pacing and sometimes odd character moments, there is much here to admire.
While “Phantom Thread” is a far more accessible film than Anderson’s previous film (and, let it be said, his best work to date), “The Master,” it shares distinct connections with it. Both films are about a creator with an unsteady frame of mind, whose relationship with a devoted but unworthy pupil is their downfall. They also sport the work of composer Jonny Greenwood, whose score here is more fittingly romantic and less harsh than in other Anderson collaborations.
The ending is odd, though it remains thematically consistent with everything that came before it. Anderson’s conclusion seems like a way of connecting established behaviors more than a proper third act conclusion. Those uninterested in the day-to-day life of a demanding designer may find the film easy to resist, with its many fetishistic close ups of stitching, sewing and needlepoint thread work. Despite how easy it is to categorize this as a Romantic Period Drama, Anderson’s film is so odd and of a piece with his other offbeat classics (like “There Will Be Blood,” “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love”) that a split reaction to it is inevitable. In the same way it took years for a full appreciation of “The Age of Innocence” to build, the same response is likely for “Phantom Thread.”
Anderson’s willingness to take chances with already unusual material remains admirable. There are several scenes that are mini-masterpieces by themselves, like Reynolds’ “surprise” date with Alma, the bitter New Year’s Eve party and the ultimate scene to ever feature an omelet.
This is essentially a three-character film, with Day-Lewis’ robust and surprisingly sympathetic turn complimented by Krieps’ expressive, relatable work and Manville’s icy, terrifying performance. The three leads are so captivating and Anderson’s film so intriguingly unlike any other currently playing, “Phantom Thread” weaves us into its spellbinding tale as firmly as a thread on a Woodcock dress.
-originally published in Maui Time Weekly