Reynolds Woodcock (three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis) is a master dressmaker in 1950s London with a fine eye and a very specific way of doing everything. He maintains complete control over his household, which is run by the calm Cyril (Lesley Manville). One day, while at lunch, he is waited on by Alma (Vicky Krieps). They are immediately fascinated by each other and he asks her to dinner. Six-time Oscar nominee Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread chronicles their relationship in a beautiful looking film that is as controlled as the world Woodcock has created for himself.
From the sets, to the dresses to the posture of the actors, everything seems meticulously designed. It gives off the feeling of what it would be like to live in the House of Woodcock. The film’s drama comes from the push and pull between the exactness of Reynolds’ well-ordered life and Alma’s willfulness. Reynolds likes having people (mainly women, it seems) around him, but they must follow his routines precisely. If they disrupt his rhythm at all, he has no use for them. Alma enjoys the benefits of being by Reynolds’ side, but does not enjoy being just another cog in his machine.
It is a delicate, and sometimes cold, film, with the emotions simmering beneath the surface. Day-Lewis, in his first film since winning a Best Actor Oscar for 2012’s Lincoln, is characteristically great. He is especially good in the moments when Woodcock loses his control. Here is a brilliant dressmaker whose best work of art is the creation of his own way of life. When he sees things going away from his desired direction, he lashes out with an anger that is childlike.
He is perfectly matched by Vicky Krieps as Alma. I was not familiar with Krieps before Phantom Thread, but she is amazing here. The action is mainly shown through her character and she more than holds her own against one of best actors in the world. She is good at playing naïve while being swept up into Reynolds’ world, but she is even better once she begins to assert herself on his life. The mystery here is what these two people really want from each other and how far will they go to get it.
Manville plays things close to the vest as Cyril. It is clear how much she cares about Reynolds, but what does she think of Alma? And how much does she understand about what is going on between those two? What Manville does here is the very definition of supporting work. This is Day-Lewis and Krieps film. Her Cyril is there to provide insight into Reynolds’ world through her very existence. It is an unsung job and she performs it wonderfully.
Phantom Thread (124 minutes without the end credits) is Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth film as writer/director and his first since 2014’s Inherent Vice. It is his second collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis, who he directed to a Best Actor Oscar win in 2007’s There Will Be Blood. That was a film about a character losing himself as a result of the singlemindedness of his work. This is a film about a man consumed with his own work who discovers his true desires. It is a subtle, but big, difference and these are two very different films. Anderson makes no easy choices as a filmmaker and Phantom Thread is most certainly not a safe film. Every one of his stylistic decisions effectively creates a slightly unsettled mood around his characters. For some viewers, this could create an awkward distance between themselves and the film which may possibly hurt their enjoyment. For others, it will lull them in with its hypnotic vision.
I belong mostly in that second category. There were times where the restrained emotions held me back from becoming fully involved. But mostly I was fascinated by the behavior of these two remarkable people and this contained world Anderson has created. I came away from Phantom Thread thinking the same thing I have after a couple other Anderson films: it is not perfect, but it comes from the mind of someone who knows exactly what he is trying to accomplish. Eliminating its flaws may very well have hindered what makes it so captivating just in the service of trying to make something great. In fact, it may be a great film as is.
4½ out of 5
Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock
Vicky Krieps as Alma
Lesley Manville as Cyril
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson