It’s a little surreal to see Paul Thomas Anderson cinematically departing America for the first time for postwar London. But then again, the fantastical element that bleeds through Anderson’s impressive filmography makes his latest film, Phantom Thread, a deviation that still aligns itself with the likes of The Master and There Will Be Blood.
In his final performance, Phantom Thread follows the revered dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Under the pressure of new, European influences on the fashion industry, Woodcock, like Anderson himself, finds himself looking abroad for inspiration. Woodcock falls for a German waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who becomes the latest in a long line of disposable muses. However, there’s something different about Alma. She’s more tenacious and beguiling than the others and more challenging to the stiff status quo that Woodcock has carved out in the dreamlike circus of his fashion house.
“Embroiled in his work and his search for the ultimate muse, Day-Lewis’ performance is one of unsettling obsession and intense fragility. There’s a gangly, anaemic quality to Woodcock, that both repels and allures.”
Woodcock keeps his business in the family, leaving his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) to handle the paperwork and tend to the esteemed clientele whilst Reynolds focuses on stringing together his intricate garments. As we learn early on, Woodcock is still haunted by the absence of his mother who passed away many years ago. Cyril, to a certain degree, fills that feminine void with her tough, nurturing approach, but it is in Alma and the women that have come and gone before her that Woodcock looks to plug that maternal gap with completely.
Embroiled in his work and his search for the ultimate muse, Day-Lewis’ performance is one of unsettling obsession and intense fragility. There’s a gangly, anaemic quality to Woodcock, that both repels and allures. His accent, an odd concoction of the stiff, sequestered Brit and a dark, eastern European twang, only accentuates his mystique. His romance with Alma is a toxic one. The animosity can often be subdued but also sharp and striking as the culinary scenes scattered throughout the film show so unexpectedly. But Phantom Thread is also wonderfully funny in parts. Manville’s Cyril’s deadpan counterpoint overcomes Reynolds’ often brattish exterior, cutting him down to size with some searing one-liners. Reynolds too is funny, although unintentionally; the sprinkling of some furiously delivered expletives helps to drive Day-Lewis’ performance into some unexpected crevices of Anderson’s nebulous universe.
As for Jonny Greenwood’s score, it provides a palpable companion to Anderson’s elusive, diaphanous vision. The peeling strings and dense, watery piano help sew Anderson’s work into something more complete and full, providing a sublime, swelling constant throughout. Praise must also be heaped upon costume designer Mark Bridges, production designer Mark Tildesley and editor Dylan Tichenor, whose artistry help to transport Anderson’s ghost story from the page to the shock of reality. The more I think about Phantom Thread the more I feel convinced that I’ve witnessed a masterpiece. Everything from the score, to the performances, to the balance of setting and design, ties together so beautifully. A piece so immaculate, Reynolds Woodcock himself would be proud to call it his own.