As I said three years ago (I hate time) in my review for “Inherent Vice,” Paul Thomas Anderson has always been one of those filmmakers whom I recognize an immense amount of talent in, even if I’ve never really been captivated by one of his films in a way that others have. “There Will Be Blood” was the closest to do so, though if only short due to Daniel Day-Lewis taking everything that film had and distinctly making it his own. Now, three years since his last (polarizing) film, Anderson returns with “Phantom Thread,” a more traditional prestige pic that we can only expect will have Anderson’s distinct touch on in his introduction to the English period piece. Heartbreakingly so, Day-Lewis, also involved with “Phantom Thread,” has stated that this will be the last film of his career before his retirement effective immediately. It’s sad to see such a talent go, but Day-Lewis, as picky for roles as he is, probably wouldn’t choose “Phantom Thread” as his finale if not for good reason.
And why not? “Phantom Thread” is divine.
Set in 1950s London, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a world-renowned fashion designer, known primarily for his gorgeous gowns he designs. He’s a particular and very demanding individual, living with his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville) in their design house. With a laissez-faire attitude with his muses, he stumbles upon a woman in the country whom he finds feelings for unlike any other before in Alma (Vicky Krieps). Their relationship blossoms, but they soon find that their strong-willed personalities will prove a great challenge in maintaining the love without war.
Day-Lewis is obviously fabulous. Being one of the most talented actors of his generation, perhaps of modern film in general, he has such a way of transforming his characters into something challenging and maddening, all the while maintaining the sort of charm that a character like Woodcock carries effortlessly on the outside. Woodcock isn’t generally likable, but he snows moments of vulnerability that let the audience peek into a different side of him, one not entirely unlike himself, but less guarded. Day-Lewis has a really great way of being able to play the character on any extent of that spectrum and it feels absolutely correct.
While Day-Lewis is wonderful, it’s the two women surrounding him that make “Phantom Thread” the piece of work that it is. Krieps is a find to end all finds. Combining a bit of young Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander, Krieps has a star power like none other. She’s brave, vulnerable, fragile, brutal, determined, loving, hating, and everything in-between. She’s the image of a woman nearly torn apart by trying to keep up with a man who seeks not to be kept up with, until she finds a way to get him to come back to her pace, not the other way around. Manville, on the other hand, plays one character on the surface, and is an entirely different beast altogether beneath the façade. One might find Cyril to be Woodcock’s trusted confidante, and on some level, sure, but there’s another level that Manville brings to her character that can only come across in a facial expression, or a camera move surrounding her character, that makes all the performances beautiful dances. On any other year, “Phantom Thread” would’ve been the talk of the town on the acting awards.
Still, I can’t imagine “Phantom Thread” being much of what it is without Jonny Greenwood’s ornately crafted score. At first, you think you might be getting something relatively simple and up front, but as the minutes of the film fly by, it very soon becomes apparent that Greenwood’s score is one of fluttering, dreamlike elegance that floats the movie down its path to sure destruction. It’s unique, but never off-putting. Classic, but never old-fashioned. This is a beautifully constructed musical score that one might not expect from Greenwood, or for the film in its entirety, but the end result is nothing short of a miracle.
Not only written and directed by Anderson, he also served as the film’s uncredited cinematographer, creating an image in his film unlike any we’ve seen before from Anderson. There’s a certain fluidity in the movement of “Phantom Thread” that felt more feminine and delicate than his previous work has in the past. There’s a real sense of being in the film, in that the camera really does feel like its own separate entity floating throughout these character’s lives. With Anderson taking the helm of the camera, there’s a sense of understanding in the film that you often don’t get with most other films, that through-and-through, this is a product of Anderson’s work.
Still, there’s so much more to celebrate here that wasn’t handled by Anderson. “Phantom Thread” is an absolutely exquisite film that does wonders with the production and costume design in the film. Despite being a period piece, we don’t often get any look out into the world that was at the time, rather to focus solely on the characters inside the house. That being said, when the house is this wonderful designed, who would want to. The sets and such are not ostentatious by any means, nor do they scream “look at me” to you like so many other films try to do in their crafting, but the minimalist sheen to the entirely setting is so pristine that one could pause any such scene in the film just to pick out any sort of detail one might miss simply viewing the film as it passes by you.
On the flipside, the costume design of the film also doesn’t scream “look at me” in the complicated designs that often filter into films like this, but through refined simplicity and an attunement to the time that makes it so incredibly beautiful. Throughout the entire film, the idea that less is more is seen so intricately that when a little bit of flair finds its way through to the surface, the effect is truly thrilling to watch. I was anticipating each new costume in the film to be revealed, as if I somehow were procuring these divine clothes for my own closet by the end of the film. There’s a sense of intimacy with the design of the entire film, music, costume design, production design, etc., that Anderson finds a groove with and gets you so comfortable in that it almost becomes difficult to leave the film come its conclusion.
When I was initially watching “Phantom Thread,” I found it to be a little tough to crack, if only because I found the character of Woodcock to be incredibly frustrating, but as the film went on, I began to find the tune that Anderson was stringing with “Phantom Thread,” one that fit the challenging nature of Woodcock and offset it perfectly with the thematic heft brought by both Alma and Cyril. It’s not what one might expect from the surface, nor is it a film that will even go in the directions you might think it will in the last 20 minutes, but it’s a film you ride with and when one does, you’re swept away into a world of exquisite beauty and fascinating narrative heft. The sort of unconventional beauty that Anderson squeezes out of the film, even when you think there’s none left, is a gorgeous experiment in matching style with substance, rather than having to choose one over the other.
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps.
Runtime: 130 minutes
Rating: R for language.
Now playing at select Charlotte-area theaters.
Focus Features and Annapurna Pictures present, in association with Perfect World Pictures, a Joanne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film production, “Phantom Thread”