For a long time, next to nothing was known about Phantom Thread. It was simply known as the new Paul Thomas Anderson film that may or may not be about a British fashion designer. Then, with a well-timed bombshell announcement from its star, Phantom Thread became the new Paul Thomas Anderson film featuring Daniel Day-Lewis’ final performance before retiring from acting.
Now that the movie is finally here, it can now called for what it actually is: the new Paul Thomas Anderson-Daniel Day-Lewis film that, despite all of the anticipation, is a little underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong — like all of Anderson’s films (the best of which remain Boogie Nights and Magnolia), Phantom Thread is meticulously crafted, visually sumptuous, impeccably acted, and very, very directorly. But until the final act, this straight-jacketed character study is also pretty tame stuff — emotionally remote, a bit too studied, and far easier to admire than surrender to and swoon over. It seems to exist under glass.
Once again, Day-Lewis goes deep and has clearly done his homework. The 60-year-old actor doesn’t seem to know any other way. In an era of tin-plated movie stars, the world of cinema will miss him. But I’m not sure he will look back and be glad he went out on this film. Here he plays a renowned British dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock (the name could’ve just as easily belonged to the lead stud in one of Jack Horner’s productions in Boogie Nights), a fastidious dandy and confirmed bachelor in 1950s London, who lords over his bustling atelier alongside his trusted-but-equally imperious sister Cyril (a wonderfully clipped and chilly Lesley Manville). He’s like a cross between Christian Dior and General George Patton.
Reynolds is a perfectionist, and though he dresses the cream of European high society, he’s prone to hair-trigger outbursts. In his company, one butters their breakfast toast and stirs their tea at their own peril. Flitting from fitting to fitting in bespoke suits, natty bow ties, and silver swept-back hair, Reynolds finds himself in a creative funk. The little flourishes he gives to his gowns (such as secret little messages and locks of hair he sews into the hems) are no longer enough to fuel his art. He needs a new muse. And he finds inspiration in the most unlikely of places.
While stopping for breakfast one morning in the English countryside, he notices a slightly awkward, auburn-tressed waitress (Luxembourg-born actress Vicky Krieps) with a vaguely continental accent. Her name is Alma, and he thinks that she has…something. Her measurements are important, to be sure. But she also seems to possess a mysterious air of hauteur that belies her seemingly modest circumstances. Reynolds strikes up a forward and flirty conversation with her and invites her to dinner that night. Then he brings her to his studio and fits her for an evening gown. Watching him swirl around her with a measuring tape and a mouthful of pins, you get the impression that not only has a woman like Alma never been paid attention to like this before, but also that this is Reynolds’ way of making love. His own chaste form of seduction and conquest.
The initial romance between Reynolds and Alma — not to mention the vibe of the film itself — feels exceedingly melodramatic, as if this was Anderson’s hat-tip to classic movie whirlwinds like Rebecca and Vertigo. The movie seems to breathe ether instead of oxygen. As their courtship develops, the headstrong Alma moves in with Reynolds and his snippy sister. She’s a third wheel in their incestuous brother-sister act and she gets pushed around, but not without pushing back, which of course becomes too much for Reynolds, so used to getting his way all the time. She refuses to play the role of a mute mannequin. She has opinions — and strong ones. But deep down, he comes to realize that she cares about his art as much as he does. He needs her just as much, if not more, than she needs him.
There’s a long Hollywood tradition of movies about obsessed, demanding male artists who treat others (usually women) shabbily. Anderson isn’t exactly exploring untrammeled territory. But Day-Lewis elevates this overworked thematic cliché into something unforgettably his own. His immersive technique, which has been written about to death, makes you believe him in the deepest marrow of your bones regardless of whether he’s playing Christy Brown, Daniel Plainview, or Abraham Lincoln. No other actor does quite what he does as well as he does it.
But until the late going, the film engages mostly on the level of watching a great actor at work than as enthralling drama (although Jonny Greenwood’s score and Mark Bridges’ costume design are stunning). It isn’t until the final stretch of the story, when Alma, the simple country girl in the dizzying world of high fashion, proves to have an inner sadomasochistic edge to her desire and passion, that the film perks up and grabs your attention instead of just your admiration — even if it does verge on being a bit goofy. Still, it’s a relief to see Phantom Thread shift gears from too-tame to torrid and twisted. You may even find yourself leaning forward in your seat, saying under your breath: Okay, finally! Here we go! It takes a bit too long for Anderson to get there, but for the most part, the wait ends up being worth it. B