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‘Phantom Thread’ (review)

Produced by Paul Thomas Anderson,
Megan Ellison, JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville,
Vicky Krieps, Richard Graham,Camilla Rutherford,
Harriet Sansom Harris, Brian Gleeson


“Whatever you do, do it carefully”.

Paul Thomas Anderson directs Daniel Day-Lewis in his final acting role in Phantom Thread opposite Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville.

The film focuses on The House of Woodcock, a fashion house in England run by Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis). Woodcock is a talented, depressed and genius designer of dresses and couture.

While taking breakfast one day he plays a flirty game with waitress Alma Elson (Krieps) and asks her out to dinner.

This is the spark that drives the rest of the beautiful film, with Alma as Woodcock’s inspiration and muse and Woodcock as the difficult artist whose genius makes for a difficult day to day life, but one covered in pearls and lace.

Both Anderson and Day-Lewis are auteurs and the beauty of the movie and performances cannot be understated. Anderson takes no credit for the cinematography directly, but attributes this to a collaborative effort. From a dizzying display of the runway scene, taking place in the house to a simply framed but beautiful quick shot of a car driving through the dark streets encroaching the frame lit with trees as cathedral ceilings, this film is amazing to look at and wash over you.

Fans of a more elegant time in society where dresses for coming out season were fitted to exacting measurements and colors that complement the skin will get their fix of fashion and costume drama that they may be seeking in this movie. However, the clever thing is that this story isn’t about the clothes or the canvas or the runway. Nor is it about hiding messages in the cloth as foretold in the previews for the movie.

Phantom Thread is a more clever title about how relationships are carefully threaded together between people, invisible, with thoughts, actions and deeds that weave a story of the day. An invisible thread might pull someone’s thoughts or actions toward a piece of ribbon that makes the day more special. Or, this thread might be holding up some support for a bosom but isn’t meant to be seen from the outside. A thread may be only seen by the wearer of the garment in recognition of its role. Woodcock, Alma, his sister Cyril (played by Lesley Manville) and the women of Woodcock house all play a role in threading the fabric of Reynold’s life, often only to be seen and certainly never straying off of pattern.

Reynolds Woodcock prefers silence so that he can work, he prefers to sleep in his own bedroom while his lover lusts for him two doors away. He prefers to tell people what to do and will not take criticism the other way, nor are people inclined to give it. As a respected fashion designer he is rich, hard working and caters to royalty. In the post war decade of the 1950s, he himself is on his own pedestal. That is to say, he recognizes his own genius.

Upon meeting Alma, he isn’t swept away or changed by her. He cloaks her under his wing and takes her from her waitressing job to be his model, his mannequin, his inspiration. Not to say he does not love her, he does. They love each other, but it is not what each person is expecting from a relationship. Alma pictures loving her husband and against sister Cyril’s advisement surprises Reynold with a dinner one Thursday evening after he takes a walk. Woodcock takes this not as a nice gesture but an affront to his routine, a disturbance and interruption to his workflow and an attack meant to ruin his evening or perhaps to ruin his entire life’.

Woodcock cannot bear any disruption of this kind. Yet, Alma was expressing her love in a way she thought was kind and a big surprise by sending the chef and the servants home to make dinner herself. This melts down like the butter on the asparagus in the scene (Woodcock prefers oil and salt on the vegetable) into a gaslighting scene and argument that nearly ruins them.

It is Alma’s reaction to this disastrous meal that turns something over for her. She seeks to answer the question of why he has control over everything in the house and what she can do about it. All out of love, she wants to love him in her way, not the way he demands it.

Being a movie set in the 1950s and with Woodcock being very respected and rich, he’s expected to be acting the way he is, strict about table manners, distractions and determining how people act toward him. This leaves may leave a bad taste in the mouths of modern audiences as to how demanding he is but this also acts as a great portrait of the time. The domineering, insulting male way of speaking to his wife, sister (and business partner) and his help is a bit much by today’s manners. Alma is a strong woman though, and how she approaches her absolute love for him and her devotion to him never goes unnoticed by Woodcock even as he criticizes her.

Her ultimate resolution to the couple’s problems after they marry is one of the most unexpected surprises in Anderson’s oeuvre. The sexual tension, the beauty of the shots in the movie including an elaborate New Year’s Eve party scene and of course the costuming are second to none. The movie moves a bit slow but I didn’t mind as I was completely drawn in to this world and fascinated not only by Daniel Day-Lewis, but also Vicky Krieps putting on career defining performances. As an unintended trilogy of films, this fits in nicely with There Will Be Blood and The Master. I highly recommend this movie, as it may be the last time you will see Daniel Day-Lewis who is claims that he is retiring from acting and if this performance is truly his last, it’s unforgettable.

Phantom Thread isn’t for everyone, but those seeing a classic cinema experience should get woven into the lives of these three strong people in the Woodcock house live a hard working and exquisite life and to watch the masters Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis make truly exceptional art.


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