Phantom Thread is the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson and, very possibly, the last from Daniel Day-Lewis, who announced his retirement after production wrapped. With six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture and another for Day-Lewis’ performance, it’s touted as one of the best films of the year and deservingly so. Now that this very English story has finally arrived in UK cinemas, we can appreciate that.
Set in the 1950s, Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a celebrated dressmaker who is somewhat sheltered in his creative obsession and control issues, partly by his renown and functionally, by his doting sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who at first appears to be the next in a long line of muses, but the ways in which she challenges Reynolds prove to be transformative for both of them.
Having talked to friends who also saw Phantom Thread over the weekend, the consensus we’ve found is that its appeal is in the way it lures you in. We all went in knowing little about the particulars of the plot, but while previous Anderson films like The Master and There Will Be Blood give us fascinating subjects and characters from the off, this one leaves it to us to gradually figure out what is so fascinating about the house of Woodcock.
That’s not to say it’s ever boring for even a second, and don’t get it wrong from the brief, spoiler-free bullet points of the story – this isn’t some defensive, objectivist costume drama about a tortured creative man who just needs everyone to get out of his way. It’s a film about a relationship, with Krieps’ breakthrough turn taking equal prominence with Day-Lewis’ landmark performance.
Tonally, it bears some resemblance to Beauty & The Beast, but with an erotic current put through the fable-like comedy of manners between these mismatched partners. Day-Lewis plays Reynolds’ arrested development to a tee, with an uptight demeanour that only barely masks his petulant temper, which occasionally erupts in sharp, sweary outbursts – he may well be Anderson’s most compelling critique of masculinity and its expectations, in a filmography that’s full of them.
He declares himself a confirmed bachelor early on (a euphemism with which he appears unfamiliar), but his claim that he doesn’t need women is evidently ludicrous. With a Best Supporting Actress nomination, Manville’s performance as Cyril is just as magnetic, indulging her brother while also being exasperated with him. She has not only outgrown him but seemingly grown into the role of their mother, whom he adored. It’s Krieps’ breakout turn is our way into Reynolds’ world, but Alma reveals hidden depths of her own, over and over again throughout the course of the film.
Even in Reynolds’ professional life, the film always keeps sight of the dedicated team of women who work at his London home and actually produce his designs. And in his social life, there are also brief turns by Gina McKee and Julia Davis, which embellish the portrait of Reynolds’ ‘confirmed bachelorhood’, and also delight anyone who has ever wanted to see Julia Davis in a Paul Thomas Anderson film.
As you’d expect for a film about fashion, it looks great. Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit was unavailable, so the crisp, pristine photography is an uncredited collaborative effort between the director and his camera team. At one point, there’s a gorgeous scene set on New Year’s Eve that is the most beautiful bit of nostalgia to hit a cinema screen in some time. The classical thread runs all the way through the film, from the 1950s fashions recreated by costume designer Mark Bridges, which more than live up to the fictional reputation of our protagonist, to the marvellous score by Jonny Greenwood, which loops through the action perfectly.
The beguiling nature of the story means it will reward a rewatch, so while it’s unlikely it will lose you, you have to bear with it. Even if you’re utterly engrossed, the ending is the final stitch that pulls everything together. It’s funny how the same writers championing the film, who have seen it two or more times before it even came out in the UK, are the same people who are snobby about Netflix and the access to films that it gives people who can’t afford to travel to their nearest arthouse cinema every week, but it seems like a lot of reviews are coming from critics who have already seen it multiple times. I’ve only seen it once so far, but it’s stuck in my mind ever since.
Phantom Thread has all the makings of an instant classic. It’s not only an intimate study of an unusual relationship that feels eerie and sumptuous while you’re in it, but a more intricate picture of the characters and their place in the world that can only be fully appreciated when you stand back from it afterwards. While its particular brand of cinematic kinkiness is not showy by most measures, it feels like the most eminently rewatchable prestige picture of the current awards season run, sending Daniel Day-Lewis off to retirement on an especially strong note, while ushering in Vicky Krieps as one to watch in the future.
Phantom Thread is in UK cinemas now.