Phantom Thread (2017)
Phantom Thread feels like a memory of 1950’s British cinema, maybe even a dream. Stewing in the mind of P. T. Anderson, Punch-Drunk Love (2002), the film glides through its pompous surroundings, offering more for those with an anthropological eye than those looking to latch onto a straight-out piece of entertainment. And, if all of this sounds like a big basket of wank, I’m afraid you’ll have a tough time with Daniel Day-Lewis’ final outing.
One more time for those in the back: it’s difficult to recommend Phantom Thread as a film to be enjoyed. If you choose on embarking on the journey of dashing couturier Reynolds Woodcock, and decide that it most certainly doesn’t wag your tail, please leave your snarky comments and tweets of outrage at the door — and please don’t take this as a kinda insinuation, suggesting that you’re not intelligent enough to ‘get’ this movie. But, if you have a deep curiosity for human conduct, an interest in why we creatures behave in the truly bizarre ways that we do, then go forth and immerse yourself.
Going from the smoke hazed ‘Hey maaaan’ surroundings of the head-scratching Inherent Vice (2014), to the tender tapping of piano keys, writer-director P. T. Anderson has opted to slow things down and starch things up, and, in the process, help escort one of cinema’s greatest actors out of the business (although, he’s done this once before). Phantom Thread takes viewers into the extraordinarily closed-off House of Woodcock, introducing us to Day-Lewis’ renowned post-war fashion designer Reynolds, who’s portrayed as a shut-in virtuoso, a man of extreme habit, quietly spoken and a guy who’d rearrange his entire environment to make things just right; in tow is his confidant, protector and sibling, Cyril (Lesley Manville), a pucker-lipped ‘old so and so.’ It’s Cyril’s duty to ensure that the luxury House of Woodcock (where seamstresses and other dressmakers work at Reynolds’ disposal) not only runs smoothly, but to shield her gifted brother from any unwanted confrontation.
Confrontation is Phantom Thread’s overall through-line, either avoiding it or recklessly running towards it as Woodcock meets and falls in love with porcelain-skinned waitress Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps). Deceptively timid, the tailor is immediately smitten by the young woman, dragging her into his world of extravagant haute couture, keeping his newfound muse in his back pocket. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Alma isn’t one to merely sit on the sidelines and be used as a source of inspiration. She very swiftly works out what makes Reynolds tick, and soon an emotionally gritty yet unusually polite tug of war begins, as both lovers attempt to pull the other into the way of life and love they each so desire. The film hurtles towards a Hitchcockian romance before stopping at the cliff’s edge.
On the face of it, one could argue that Phantom Thread is an odd movie for Day-Lewis to retire on. It doesn’t seem like an overly taxing performance on his part, particularly if you compare it to his roaring, broken portrayal of prospector Daniel Plainview from 2007’s There Will Be Blood. But, dare I say, it’s probably his most transparent and forthcoming in years, Day-Lewis bearing his own persona and vulnerability onto the screen. Reynolds Woodcock and Day-Lewis aren’t dissimilar, both soft spoken, intensely private, obsessive geniuses; perhaps the difficult part for Day-Lewis may have not been finding the character of Reynolds, but showing the world who he truly is.
As good as Day-Lewis is, he’s nearly outdone by the likes of little-known Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps, Hanna (2011), and Lesley Manville, Another Year (2010), the latter in particular. It’s genuinely fun to watch Krieps’ Alma hide her adolescent mischief behind such delicate features. Her ability to get on Woodcock’s nerves, chiefly in the later portion of the film, is of particular note, where it feels as though both actors are locked in a competition to see who cracks first. Manville, who portrays the house’s poker-faced authority figure Cyril, is all business. Offering just a whiff of emotion, Cyril goes about her duties as a polite sorta T-1000, accepting most of her brother’s eccentric behaviors, but drawing a line in the sand when he turns his ire onto her. Never will one be so terrified of such an upright woman, gently sipping her tea, and telling her brother, ‘Don’t pick a fight with me. You won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you, and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor. Understood?’
With P.T. Anderson now doing his own DOP work, Phantom Thread looks sublime, the costumes by Academy Award winner Mark Bridges, The Artist (2010), taking front and center, the movie brimming with linens, fabrics and cottons aplenty, along with close-ups of the tailor’s many pinpricks and gashes. Similarly, the elegant production design by Mark Tildesley, The Constant Gardener (2005), and set decorations by Véronique Melery, Jackie (2016), feel spacious albeit somewhat claustrophobic (go figure), the entire film elevated and enhanced by its very strong technical merits.
It’s fair to say that Phantom Thread isn’t for everyone. If I were being totally honest, it’s catnip for some of us jaded critics who grow weary of modern cinema’s big budget indulgences and require something far more pensive and cerebral than a general audience is willing to take a chance on. But, while not something worthy of hammering into a bucket of popcorn for, Phantom Thread is still a fascinating study into the feeding and enabling of genius and obsession, and an alternate piece of art for those of us needing something a little more placid.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Carlo Peritore