A new Paul Thomas Anderson film is always something of an event, after having made such masterful works as Boogie Nights, The Master and Magnolia; remember, this is the director talented enough to even make an Adam Sandler comedy incredible with Punch-Drunk Love. The same is true of the films of Daniel Day-Lewis, particularly given the long gaps between performances, with his last appearance – in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln – being six years ago. Add the fact that Day-Lewis has confirmed this to be his final performance before his retirement, and the fact that his last collaboration with Anderson gave us the incredible There Will Be Blood, and it becomes difficult not to go into Phantom Thread without certain expectations. It is immensely pleasing, therefore, to report that this film not only meets these high expectations, but manages to subvert them at every turn.
The plot follows Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock, a dress-maker in 1950s London, who meets and soon falls in love with his new muse, Alma (played by relative newcomer Vicky Krieps). To say any more than this would be to give away too much of the plot, but needless to say– this being a PTA film – what follows is a dark and intense look into Reynolds’ artistic impulses, obsessions, and the way these affect the people around him. Hearing this brief synopsis, or even watching the film’s trailer, it would be easy to go into Phantom Thread expecting a heavy drama, but this is only sort-of what you get. What doesn’t become apparent until later on is that Phantom Thread is, in its own bizarre way, very funny. This isn’t to say that the humour ever undercuts the drama, but certain lines and the way they’re delivered can often catch the viewer completely off-guard; the best lines in particular going to Reynolds’ sister Cyril, played by Lesley Manville, definitely earning her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. This all leads to an ending so audacious in its strange inscrutability that it practically forces you to watch the film again in a whole new light. After just one viewing, it is difficult to decide whether this ending – and indeed the whole film – is funny or deeply unnerving; in truth it is a bit of both.
The first half of the film feels light and airy, with the camera beautifully capturing the wide empty spaces of Reynolds’ London home. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that there was no single cinematographer for this film, and the process has been described by Anderson as more of a team effort amongst the crew. As the plot develops however, and Alma is pulled further and further into Reynolds’ world, the film begins to feel far more suffocating and claustrophobic. This is reflected by the way the images on-screen begin to feel more confined as if they’re closing in around Alma. The lighting changes from soft, natural light streaming in through the wide windows, to a harsh, almost dangerous-looking fireside glow. This is all aided by frequent PTA collaborator, Johnny Greenwood, whose score contributes greatly to the unrelenting and unsettling atmosphere, which feels as if it’s embedded in the film, rather than simply a distraction.
Despite the film’s marketing, and the fact that Reynolds is his final role, this is not simply the Daniel Day-Lewis show. Instead, the film is more of a two-hander between him and Vicky Krieps’ Alma, a character who starts off as an audience surrogate as she enters his life, before developing into much more. Krieps and Lesley Manville are both excellent, and are more than capable of not just matching Day-Lewis, but at points out-doing him.
It seems almost predictable to mention how good Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is in this film, but this is with good reason; Reynolds Woodcock instantly joins the list of characters he has expertly brought to life. From the very second he appears on screen, dresses, and says his first lines, he immediately feels like a fully-formed, completely realised character. This role is miles away from his previous collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson in There Will Be Blood, to the extent that the two characters are virtually unrecognisable as the same actor. Whilst Daniel Plainview was a cruel, harsh bully, Reynolds is more of a quiet, repressed man-child, his calm demeanour only occasionally being broken by sudden outbursts like a sociopathic Gustave H. from the Grand Budapest Hotel. If this really does prove to be his final performance, then he certainly knows how to make an exit, giving a portrayal which is not only as excellent as we would expect, but one that completely defies our expectations.
There are so many layers to this film, and so many aspects which take on a greater significance after viewing, that it feels impossible to process after just one watch. However, this is not to say that the first watch isn’t an absolute visceral pleasure, and I personally came out eager to watch it again. Certain aspects of the film will obviously vary from audience to audience, and I can certainly understand that, whilst I loved the ending, it may not quite work for everyone. If nothing else, this film is practically a shoo-in for Best Costume Design at the Oscars.
Words by Adam Wells