Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Phantom Thread is a mysterious movie. It is, at once, hypnotic and unsettling. Days after watching it, I wondered what exactly I had seen – is it a perverse love story? Or a darkly, comical portrait of a toxic relationship? Or a heart-breaking story about a young, spirited woman desperately in love with an older, domineering man who loves his work too much to love anyone else?
The story is set in London in the 1950s. Daniel Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer who services the rich and the famous. Reynolds doesn’t just make clothes. He designs dreams. Wearing his fantastical, structured gowns, women become art installations. This is a man who single-handedly sewed a wedding dress for his mother when he was 16. He now lives in a carefully monitored world, which his sister Cyril – played by Lesley Manville – oversees. Here clothes are made with a quiet precision and loud noises aren’t tolerated. Even the sound of a toast being buttered at breakfast breaks Reynolds’ concentration. As he says early in the film: I cannot begin my day with a confrontation.
Into this fashion monastery arrives the bumbling, charming waitress Alma, an immigrant whose origins are never revealed. Alma serves Reynolds breakfast at a restaurant but even before the meal is done, he has asked her out for dinner. On their first date, he takes her measurement. And Cyril dryly declares: you have the ideal shape. He likes a little belly.
What follows is a desperate tale of desire and exactly the confrontation that Reynolds wants to avoid. Alma moves in with Reynolds and Cyril but she wants to be more than a silent backdrop. She reveals to Reynolds how stunted his life is but she also unhinges his peace and his process. The meticulously maintained house of Woodcock comes undone.
Phantom Thread is breathtakingly elegant. The costumes by Mark Bridges aren’t ostentatious but they are drop-dead gorgeous. I usually start noticing clothes in a movie when I’m bored but here costumes are one of the many elements to savour. As is the production design by Mark Tildesley. With extreme precision, director Paul Thomas Anderson creates a beautiful but claustrophobic world. And you are trapped in here with three individuals who are fascinating but not very likeable.
The acting is the stuff of genius. In his review of Phantom Thread, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane called Daniel Day-Lewis the Federer of film. It’s such a lovely and apt descriptor. Manville as the clipped, controlling Cyril is equally good. Both have won Oscars nominations. But the surprise here is Vicky Krieps who stands as an equal. She has a lovely, flawed beauty that makes Alma’s ache more palpable.
Daniel Day-Lewis has said that Phantom Thread will be his last film. Which is one more reason to see it.