REVIEW: Phantom Thread

February 2, 2018

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps

Runtime: 130 Minutes




The most gratifying and complimentary thing to be said of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is that while the marketing and discussion surrounding the film’s narrative and its secrets has become a discussion in and of itself – as do many features that market themselves with deliberate paradoxical hyperbole and an air of mystery – the reason why it is being so closely guarded by those wanting to discuss it further isn’t down to a gimmick or twist, but rather the slow, patient and revealing method of which it unpacks its very singular concepts and ideas, lays them down in front of you, and ultimately wraps you in like the comforting and well-fitting garments it displays.


The experience of watching Phantom Thread slowly disclose its core themes and ideas over its relatively short runtime (for a Paul Thomas Anderson feature) is something to savour as a feature of desirably of the moment pleasures, muted expression and emotional constraint but bursting with life, joy and the work of one of contemporary cinemas finest ever craftsmen taking form before your eyes and ears.


Anderson’s films feel born out of whatever has recently piqued is interest, drawing from cinematic influences and crafting his own universe from stimulus as opposed to incentive. Here he sketches an intimate character drama out a story influenced by the fashion world of 1950s England, especially the work of Charles James.


Here we see Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a renowned fashion designer for members of high society who lives a calm life of routine, practise and craft alongside his overseeing sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), following a circle of taking in younger women and discarding them at will. It is only when he falls for a young waitress, Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps) and invites her into his life and home as his muse and model that his life of obsessive control begins to unspool in subtle but affecting ways.


That is pretty much as much as should be said regarding where the film takes its characters from this point forward as to preserve the ultimate understanding of their existence and bounds to one another. The film takes its time in setting up the pieces of their relationship and how the film will play out with them, only to take turns in directions that reference gothic romance literature, costume drama, and in many ways fairy tales when the dressing of the setting and context is removed from its story structure.


Not merely a painting of the power balance of class and femininity, it depicts the life of an artist as a creator, their relationship to their art and influences and the difficulties of genius and perfection being a standard that only one who holds themselves in such esteem (and is regarded as such) can achieve while everyone around them can only be human. While also being challenged by the changing tides of taste in the fashion world.


The film has been touted as the final performance of the great Day-Lewis, and if this is to be the last we see of him onscreen then he leaves with us a character and performance for the ages in the form of Reynolds Woodcock. His mannerisms, stature, the soothing cadence and inflexions of his vocal performance sell a human being of immense calm and emotional regulation, less a tortured artist than a spoiled brat who has never grown out of his childhood tendencies, with the ghost of his dead mother hanging over the film and his character.


The absence of this void being filled by a tremendous supporting role by Lesley Manville, who brings a dry humour and iron will into his world and the house in which a majority of the film is staged. But the breakout feels like Vicky Krieps who holds the gaze and audience investment, as its as much her story as it is Woodcock’s. Krieps is extraordinary at balancing an incredibly difficult role and holds her own against her onscreen counterparts. The entire production feels alive with energy and layered complexity even with the presence of only three main characters.


But this is Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, and his direction and detailed attention in every facet of this gorgeous production are what makes this an all-timer – which really says something given his exceptional filmography. The costumes are breathtaking, and despite the lack of a registered cinematographer his work with the production unit on location in the U.K. makes this glow and sing visually even in its interior locations.


His composure with camera movement, editing and the timing of cuts is measured and dynamic, but the sound design of the film is the most absorbing element of all. From the clacks of cutlery and deep strokes of fabric, everything places you in the world from the perspective of its characters in a unique and telling way. Jonny Greenwood's score is equally luxurious, covering motifs over and over with new shades being stripped back and added as the narrative develops with stirring strings and plucks giving way to powerful dramatic drops.


Even avoiding the discussion of the final movement, in which everything comes together in such a strange but emotionally satisfying way, Phantom Thread is impossible to shake as a cinematic endeavour of single-minded vision, essential virtue and impossibly attractive visuals in every space. Time will tell if its legacy will stand to its current glory, but for now, this might be Anderson’s finest hour and most flawless work to date.


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