Phantom Thread

Published on January 22nd, 2018

Phantom Thread

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

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

Reviewed by Michael Dalton

Rating: ★★★★★

It was only a matter of time before esteemed director Paul Thomas Anderson would take on the grand love story. He flirted with it years ago when he created (and Anderson undeniably creates more than he directs) Punch Drunk Love. That story, starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson, was wayward and bizarre but it wrapped things up with a great kick. “Here we go”, Watson told Sandler at the end of their adventure. But Anderson’s new film Phantom Thread is infinitely more reverent, and a lot funnier. Daniel Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, an esteemed dress designer who works in London, and insists on absolute control and calm, especially at breakfast. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), icy and composed (perhaps even more than her brother), attends to every detail of their lives, allowing her brother space to create. The opening scenes concern Reynolds preparing for another day (in this it directly mirrors the opening sequence of Dangerous Liaisons in the way its conniving players dressed for another day of manipulation) and then, breakfast, where his current lover, Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), sits, proffering a plate of pastries. Reynolds regards them disdainfully and with that one withering look, Cyril knows its time for his latest lover to leave. To the country Reynolds goes for peace and there, in a restaurant, he spies Alma (Vicky Krieps), a plain Jane, waiting tables. After spilling out an endless order for breakfast, he asks her to dinner and then to his country home, where, inspired by her flat chest and slight belly, he seductively measures her for a gown. Before the bedsheets are even drawn back, Reynolds has made love to her.

He returns to London with her and there, the curious relationship begins but for Reynolds, this will be a union unlike anything he’s ever known. She adjusts to his routine as Cyril watches closely (in one stunning scene we learn of the true dynamic between this brother and sister), Alma learns what her lover likes and more importantly what he dislikes and it is there that Anderson’s curious tale kicks into high gear. It is how Anderson, who wrote the screenplay, finds the humour in his story that allows the action so much texture. It creeps up on the narrative, at first so reverent, and then from that reverence, the humour emerges. It becomes clear that Alma may soon be heading the same way as her predecessor but then Anderson jars us with a shift. A wealthy, insecure woman arrives for a fitting for an upcoming wedding, she insists Reynolds attends, he does, with Alma, what he witnesses at the wedding deeply offends him, he resolves to correct it, and he and Alma bond.

So with Phantom Thread, Anderson has delivered his eighth film. From neo-noir (Hard Eight) to the porn industry (Boogie Nights) to interconnected stories in the San Fernando Valley (Magnolia) to the adventures of a ruthless oilman (There Will Be Blood), he continually veers off but in every film, the action plays out to the back of the stage. He’s a studier, an examiner of the human psyche, and here we journey in closer than ever. While Day-Lewis is the one everybody’s talking about (and he’s splendid), Krieps is the star. Quietly attractive and gifted with a face that could play anything, Phantom Thread belongs to her. Anderson even lets his leading couple go for a grand swoon when it finally hits Reynolds just what he has in his bed. It’s a moment that, in a lesser movie, would have the audience groaning in unison but in Phantom Thread, they’re going to swoon.

The pretensions and unnecessary muddle of his two previous affairs, The Master and Inherent Vice, are thankfully gone. Here the focus is sharp and clear. There’s no metaphor, just layers and every one of them is worth scrutinising. But leave us not forget Lesley Manville, petite, shaded, and one not to be trifled with. Not since Mike Leigh’s Another Year has she had a character so worthy of her talents. Strongly touted for supporting actress consideration in this choppy award season, for my money she’s a lock. This is a character and a half, all knowing, all seeing, and more powerful in the grand scheme than anyone might suspect. Watch her closely. She’s a movie on her own.

Phantom Thread opens on February 01, 2018 in Australia