The joy in watching an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis in a film like Phantom Thread is that you get to watch a master at his craft on two different levels – the character of dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock as he meticulously constructs extravagant works of fashion, and Day-Lewis himself in reportedly his final acting role. The story is a not-uncommon one of a perfectionist struggling to balance his relationship with his muse and his commitment to his work, but through the performance of Day-Lewis and the direction of Paul Thomas Anderson Phantom Thread becomes a film of sensuous beauty, tenderness, and fragility with touches of underlying darkness.
Reynolds Woodcock is a man of routine and order. He likes to work on his designs at breakfast, in silence, and does not like surprises of any kind. His sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), works extensively with him and seems to be the only one who can understand his insistent quirks and demands. Woodcock has a habit of becoming infatuated with various beautiful women, using them as his muses, before disregarding them in favour of his work. Much of the story of Phantom Thread is told through the perspective of Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress who begins a relationship with Woodcock and is determined to care for him and be a part of his life no matter what it takes. The chemistry between Alma and Woodcock forms the foundation that Phantom Thread is built upon, and the two actors give masterful performances in their roles. I found the dialogue in some scenes was almost incidental, particularly the early flirtatious moments between the two, as the looks they give one another and the way they hold their bodies is all that’s needed to demonstrate the complex feelings and changing moods of each moment. In a heated argument between the two later on each character ends up repeating the same lines two or three times as they struggle to get to the crux of their grievances at one another, but each new delivery brings new meanings and additional impact. Often positioned between the two is Cyril, bringing a cool sense of control over her temperamental brother and the romantically inclined Alma.
There have been plenty of films about the overbearing male genius, but while most actors use it as an excuse to dominate each scene Day-Lewis gives Woodcock tremendous gentleness and fragility. Anderson demonstrates how Reynolds’ passion for his work torments himself as much as those around him, becoming distraught when he feels his work isn’t good enough, and his complaints and demands to Cyril make him resemble a pouting child at times. When he does lash out at those around him, particularly Alma, he rarely raises his voice and simply expresses his displeasure with brutally matter-of-fact lines, some of which are cruelly humorous despite their cutting nature thanks to Anderson’s wonderful script. Woodcock’s attention to detail is represented through Phantom Thread’s often amplified soundscape, with simple noises like the ruffle of various fabrics or the scape of a bread knife against toast brought up to demonstrate the intensity of his focus.
Paul Thomas Anderson has long demonstrated his skill at creating timeless films, ones that honour the past while remaining modern in execution, and he’s done so again by making an intricate, sensitive masterpiece. Mark Bridge’s costume design allows each dress to feel like a new character, as the camera fawns over the care placed into each stitch and the love poured into each design, a love that is occasionally not respected by the models wearing them. Jonny Greenwood’s score is prevalent throughout almost every scene and mixes classical and romantic tones to give a story centred on the world of fashion an operatic quality by the end. For Phantom Thread often surprised me, taking a seemingly simple story about genius, romance, and fashion and bringing it to a much darker place without losing any of its elegance or grace.