Film Review – Phantom Thread (2017)

It’s the second collaboration between Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis.  And, for what he says will be his last appearance on screen, he’s invested even more of himself than usual in Phantom Thread – as Anderson’s writing partner on the screenplay.  It all adds up to going out on the proverbial high, in an enormously seductive, elegant piece of cinema with an enigmatic and profoundly dark side.

That elegance is right to the fore in the opening sequence, a masterclass in how to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.  A group of women walk up a long, curving staircase to work but, through the eyes of PTA as cinematographer, we’re treated to an immaculately composed scene, with precise footsteps, regimented clothing and downward camera angles that make for a jaw dropping opener, one that sets the style and tone for the entire film.

The setting is 1950s London, with Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned fashion designer and dressmaker with clients from the highest echelons of society, both in this country and abroad.  He lives a well-ordered life, managed by his formidable sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and occasionally indulges in girlfriends, which he discards when he grows tired of them.  But in unassuming waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) he meets his match and she becomes his muse and his lover.

Together, Day-Lewis and Anderson give us another solitary obsessive, not a million miles away from There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview.  Ignoring the clients who throw themselves at him, he chooses girlfriends who will make good models for his exquisite creations and discards them once they’ve served their purpose.  He’s as fastidious as his garments, as witnessed by the recurring breakfast motif and his need for a quiet start to the day – crunching toast is simply not allowed – and his bowls of lapsang, but only when he asks for them.  Alma up-ends all that through defiance and an act of possession that he not only understands, but goes along with, making their relationship close to sado-masochistic – but not in the physical way those words often imply.

While Woodcock invokes the spirit of society designers like Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell, the presence of no less a film maker than Alfred Hitchcock is never far away, specifically his version of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Lesley Manville, superb as the black-clad Cyril, looks remarkably like Judith Anderson’s sinister Mrs Danvers from the 1940 film.  She hardly ever smiles and, when she does, it’s no more than a stretch of the lips.  And Alma’s youthful awkwardness is reminiscent of the anonymous second Mrs De Winter, even if she doesn’t have quite the same vulnerability.

Day-Lewis’s performance is as precise and immaculate as the film itself.  He reputedly stayed in character throughout the shoot, even helping design one of the dresses modelled by his muse.  By his own admission, Woodcock is “a confirmed bachelor” but it’s no euphemism.  In turn cantankerous, fastidious and humourless, he holds a fascination for women who, presumably, relish a challenge.  And his outburst over the word “chic” is a priceless moment in a fabulously charismatic piece of acting.

Anderson casts his spell by filming in grainy 35 mm to evoke the period and its palette – the dresses are jewels of colour amidst the sludgy tones of the day.  And  reinforces it with a score from Jonny Greenwood that is so much an integral part of the action that there should be pianist just out of shot.  The title is as enigmatic as the film itself.  Perhaps it refers to the incomprehensible bond between Woodcock and Alma, perhaps not.  But there’s no perhaps about the film.  It’s a fabulous creation.


Freda Cooper | ★★★★1/2

Drama, Romance | 15 | 2 February 2018 (UK) | Universal | Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson | Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Gina McKee, Philip Franks, Brian Gleeson