FILM REVIEW: Daniel Day Lewis Weaves Powerful Acting Into Stringy PHANTOM THREAD
There is much to admire in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, the supposed last performance by legendary thespian Daniel Day Lewis. There is the persuasive performance from Day Lewis, the one you know he will give you, to go along with a strong turn by costar Leslie Manville as well. There is the tantalizing score by musician Jonny Greenwood, a serious Oscar threat this award season. And there are the aesthetic environs, bloated with showy costumes (the point of the film after all) and shifting camera work. But the thread that unites the entire oeuvre is Anderson’s distinctive, sneakily self-indulgent style. Although Phantom Thread is an entertaining and well-made film, you will wonder, at various times, whether the emperor simply has no clothes.
Three-time Oscar winner Day Lewis stars as Reynolds Woodcock, a wildly successful and egotistical haute-couture designer for famous and wealthy women. If his name sounds half serious, half joke, it is because it most likely is meant as such by PTA’s jarring and schizophrenic script. Reynolds lives in London in the 1950s, in a large house wherein he designs his masterpieces and an experience array of women spool them together. The House of Woodcock’s empire is co-run by his eerily creepy sister Cyril, played almost to perfection by the veteran actress Manville.
Reynolds sticks to his ridiculously regimented routines and rules. He fashions himself an artist, naturally, and his inspiration and boundless talent will be interrupted by now one. Reynolds treats women with contempt and disdain, going through them like old rags and leaving their feelings in tatters. There is talk of a family curse, infected about Cyril because she helped him design their mother’s wedding dress at a young age. One day, Reynolds meets a seemingly dainty waitress named Alma (newcomer Vicky Krieps), and it is the tumultuous relationship between the two that occupies most of Phantom Thread.
Alma, whose name means “soul,” has a lot more spirit than some of the past girls that Reynolds used and abused. She fights back, subtly at times but forcefully, though Reynolds only redoubles his abusive efforts. Cyril, as you would expect, exerts influence and keeps a protective circle around her brother. The potential for enmity between the two women is brewing on the surface, though it never quite bubbles through.
Phantom Thread eventually reveals itself to be a satirical wolf in the sheep’s clothing of a satirical drama. The characters speak extremely politely to each other—until they do not, going off script with repeated invocations of four letter expletives. What appears to be a twisted plot straight out of The Beguiled turns out to be something even more macabre if a tad nonsensical and silly. Incestuous couplings turn sour when Cyril reveals herself more Jocasta than Antigone. And so forth.
Phantom Thread ends up being nothing more and nothing less than a piece by the talented PTA, whose movies you simply appreciate or you do not. Daniel Day-Lewis charms you as the solipsistic Woodcock, vile in his demeanor but impossible to take your eyes off of. He does not quite have a bring down the house speech like in his previous collaboration with PTA (There Will Be Blood). Instead, he intersperses several episodes of method acting that remind you of why he is one of the greatest living actors. And Krieps goes toe-to-toe with him, as her character does, using her nonchalant and naïve heart as a weapon. And the film persistently fools you, at first inviting you to be appalled at Woodcock’s over the top reactions to Alma’s table demeanors, then taking you all the way to being annoyed yourself, and then laughing when you realize the comedy behind the whole thing.
But Phantom Thread takes a little too long to fully come together, making the contrasting styles seem as a poor choice of color combination and not a brilliant form of accessorizing. The movie wastes too much time in giving off the air of seriousness and sophistication with which Woodcock lavishes himself so that by the time it is all revealed to be a wink-wink little quip, you may feel a bit betrayed.
Still, fans of Paul Thomas Anderson will appreciate Phantom Thread as perhaps one of his finer films. The little absurdities, the uncomfortable humor, the unpredictable and wacky behavior of the characters, all traits of his pulpy work, are all there. For non-devoted fans, on the other hand, the creases and threads may be just too visible between the seams.