PHANTOM THREAD Illustrates a Twisted Romance

An acting master says goodbye with this dark tale of love and obsession.

It’s understandable that Phantom Thread will be seen as something of a chore by audiences. The long-ish film has the potential to come off as plodding, overscored and trying too hard. It’s female protagonist may be considered too plucky for her own good, while the strong supporting female character is full of alienating features. At the same time, the many unlikeable qualities of the central male character are so strong, that they have the power to eclipse both women. Yet for every audience member who comes away feeling such thoughts, there will no doubt be one who will consider Phantom Thread not only a filmmaking masterpiece from its acclaimed writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, but one of the most spellbinding and magnetic love stories ever to reach the screen.

Set in London during the 1950s, Phantom Thread centers on celebrated fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), who has hit a creative block with his work. Frustrated, he takes a trip to the English countryside where he finds himself taken by a waitress at a cafe named Alma (Vicky Krieps). Deciding she is his latest muse, Reynolds brings Alma with him back to London. Yet the move isn’t so easy for Alma, who soon begins to struggle with Reynolds’s unpredictable nature, the strong presence of his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and the intense passion she feels for him.

In so many wyas, Phantom Thread is a film about identity. There’s something incredibly intriguing about London-set films which take place in the post-war 50s. That period of time is one in which the country, still reeling from the effects of the war, was famously trying to rebuild itself in terms of both image and spirit. Anderson’s film is in keeping with that notion by presenting Reynolds as a man searching for his own identity through the on-going series of women he adopts as muses for a period of time before moving on. Reynolds’s search for identity and his quest to find the ultimate muse cannot help but carry on into the clothes he designs. When Reynolds fails to find the perfect woman, he attempts to create her through the garments he conjures up, resulting in a career which has given him fame and adulation, yet ensures that personal fulfillment will continue to allude him. Phantom Thread does a credible job of showing fashion as a true reflection of the times; of how it belongs to an era and both defines and strengthen those who indulge in it. As a designer, Reynolds is less concerned with the pulse of the country however. For him, fashion is art with human canvases, and he is an artist who is endlessly trying to paint the right woman.

Phantom Thread is being billed as a film about a romance. While this is certainly true, the romance in question is anything but traditional; and the film is all the better because of this. Reynolds is a beast of a man who lives in a world which contains an unnerving sense of order in every aspect with the exception of his own mind, which is plagued by a kind of beautiful madness that fuels both his neurotic tendencies and his celebrated creativity. In Alma, Reynolds has at last met his match; a woman part of him thinks he can control and part of him fears he can’t. In her eyes, Alma finds Reynolds to be both magical and maniacal. Yet the more Alma is disturbed and angered by him, the more her passion grows as she finds herself hypnotized by the kind of man she has never encountered before; a wild and slightly wounded animal she aims to heal and tame. The two feed off of each other in terms of the boundaries they push, the tests they give and the games they play. In doing so, both Reynolds and Alma are forced to tear apart the individuals they thought they were and reveal their true natures. This is a romance for sure, but with its couple equal parts explosive and entranced, it is a macabre one seeped in a perverse and almost gothic-like world.

Reynolds easily could have been a hammy role, full of grandiose moments which many actors would have so readily jumped at the chance to perform. Yet the hands of Day-Lewis, such a character is transformed. In lieu of engaging in one screaming match after another, the three-time Oscar winner instead brings out his character’s madness in the simplest of ways; trying to ignore Alma’s annoying breakfast habits and fiercely smiling through her probing questions. The actor foregoes any such theatricalities and instead digs deep into Reynolds’s unorthodox psyche, honing in on an essence most wouldn’t think was possible in such a man. Very few actresses could have played Alma opposite such a presence and still make her feel like a standout character quite like the amazing Krieps. The actress is truly a find, carrying Phantom Thread alongside such an accomplished actor while projecting her own character’s journey (from a sweet ingenue to a fierce heroine) in a performance which is flat out revelatory. Both actors are forced to take something of a back seat whenever Manville is on screen. Although Cyril isn’t the most fleshed out of characters, there isn’t ever a time when the actress doesn’t fill in the gaps, mystically creating a woman who is controlled, fearsome, but ultimately human.

Phantom Thread has been widely-touted as being Day-Lewis’s final film role after news broke of the actor’s decision to retire from the screen. So rather than spin some final long-winded plea for readers to see the film, I thought the most fitting way to end this review would be to take a moment and sing the praises of one of the greatest film actors who ever lived. While the titles which won him his Oscars (My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood and Lincoln) stand as testaments to the actor’s greatness, they exist as mere footnotes in a career FULL of greatness. The way Day-Lewis emanated privilege and entitlement in A Room with a View or a warrior’s spirit in The Last of the Mohicans offered up a versatility never seen before. At the same time, the romantic conflict he brought to The Age of Innocence and the heartbreaking soulfulness displayed in The Boxer, showed an actor with an uncanny ability to unearth the deepest levels of humanity in whatever role he took on. Even in films which were larger than the persona of the character he portrayed, such as the early 20th century epic Gangs of New York and the lavish musical Nine, Day-Lewis stayed true to the nature of the man he played, bringing a truthfulness to the film that was impossible to dismiss. With famously large gaps of time off between projects, and a public persona which, although always gracious, never fit the mold of “movie star,” some may call Day-Lewis’s retirement no big deal. Eventually however, time will undoubtedly prove just how much the world of cinema has lost.

Previous post LUCKY Acts Its Age [DVD-Review]
Next post THE FOREIGNER: Dramatic Chops