“Set in the glamour of 1950’s post-war London, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) are at the center of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutantes and dames with the distinct style of The House of Woodcock. Women come and go through Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young, strong-willed woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes a fixture in his life as his muse and lover. Once controlled and planned, he finds his carefully tailored life disrupted by love” *
In his apparently last ever role, Daniel Day Lewis gets to end his career on a noticeable high since his carefully rehearsed performance as the unique Reynolds Woodcock is utterly commanding and well worthy of his Academy Award nomination (honestly, if he wins over Gary Oldman, I’d be perfectly happy with that result. And four acting Oscars. Heck of a way to go.) As you might expect from the seasoned pro by now, he uses precise, practiced movements and impeccable diction, commanding the screen as he truly embodies the character and gives a fully fleshed out, three dimensional performance; his character admits that he has a “sour heart” but there’s also some warmth to his performance as he is also allowed moments of humour that bring a sparkle to his eye. Woodcock is a demanding man but Day Lewis allows us to see “both sides of the coin” – at times, he can appear unreasonable and too difficult but at the same time, he simply appears to just want things a certain way, change being too unfavourable and unnecessary. Which is why I was able to sympathise with him so much, I guess – he’s quite a bit like me!
Alongside him, Vicky Krieps is very well cast as Alma; she starts off as an innocent, everyday figure who just happens to fall under Reynolds’ spell, eventually getting lost in his world but then facing some emotional turmoil as his uncompromising and demanding nature begin to take a toll on their relationship. But right from the start, she’s determined to be her own woman, acting the way that she feels is right, in spite of what Reynolds and Cyril would expect from her, and after a certain point, she toughens up even more and slowly becomes a far more confident, controlling and even darker figure as she takes matters into her own hands through some dramatic and shocking means. Krieps fits the role very well, making superb use of particular facial expressions and proving herself more than a match for Daniel Day Lewis.
And rounding off the central trio, Lesley Manville is ideal as Reynolds’ sister Cyril; like Day Lewis, she uses those precise hand movements, some limited and carefully thought out facial expressions, and holds herself in a very particular way. As Cyril, she’s something of a go-between between Reynolds and Alma, trying to keep the peace by making sure both are as happy as possible, advising Alma on what not to do around Reynolds and taking control of the dressmaking business when needed. Cyril could very well have become an antagonistic character, given her stern, Mrs. Danvers-like demeanour, but there’s clear warmth and humanity to her and there is an unspoken bond between her and Alma, a fond respect between the two of them, communicated through subtle glances and smiles. But of course, she’s more than capable of putting Reynolds in his place and she makes it clear at various points how strong she is and that she could easily bring him down if she wanted to.
In addition to the stellar performances, Phantom Thread greatly succeeds due to its wonderful style and lovely design. A large part of this is down to the superb era-specific score, which comes from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and is apparently heard for 69% of the film’s runtime; the central piano theme, which is heard at the beginning and end, is especially lovely to listen to since it lets the audience relax and allows them to be whisked away into this unique world. Throughout the film, the music also masterfully changes in order to reflect the altering moods in the film – as soon as events take a less than happy turn, the music expertly reflects this.
Phantom Thread is also beautifully shot and both the cinematography and production design is lavish and accomplished; the film treats us to some exquisite exterior shots of the English coastline (see the photo below) and the costumes and all the dresses are clearly a labour of love from the costume department (though I still maintain that the first featured dress is pretty ugly – but what do I know?!) Anderson’s direction is also ideal as he gets amazing performances from his actors (something that he’s well known for anyway) and he knows exactly when to use close-up shots for maximum effect – used early on to heighten the sensuality between Reynolds and Alma and to show off intricate details such as the broken skin of sewing fingers. Sound is also used admirably in the film as well – especially given the wonderfully deafening sounds at the breakfast table!
Lastly, I’d say that Anderson’s writing is accomplished as he creates a story about a very particular relationship between two very different people and the development of this relationship is unhurried, patient and refreshingly engaging. In different hands, Phantom Thread could have ended up as quite a dry, monotonous and overly serious ordeal but there’s gentle humour thrown in at certain points and the whole thing culminates in a particularly dark, twisted ending that is completely unexpected – successfully capable of taking the audience by surprise and surpassing all of their expectations.
For me, looking at all the Paul Thomas Anderson films that I’ve seen, I would rank this third in his filmography – behind There Will Be Blood and Magnolia, in that order.
A beautifully designed, well written and fully immersive experience with a superb score and a central trio of exceptional performances.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
* Not my own words