If Phantom Thread is really to be Daniel Day-Lewis’s final film, he has signed off with a suitably superb performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest exploration of power and relationships. This is a challenging and multi-faceted picture.
Reynolds Woodcock, Day-Lewis’s latest inhabited persona, is a celebrated and dedicated dressmaker to the 1950s elite in Bloomsbury. He lives a controlled and routine-led lifestyle, and has clearly been coddled for decades. A young muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps) is introduced to his careful existence, and pushes against the strict and restrictive patterns of his behaviour.
Her perspective is initially wide-eyed, and we are as put off as her by the peculiar influence of Reynolds’s sister Cyril (Leslie Manville), and the outrageous sensitivity of his morning routine. As time unfolds, we see her grow in confidence and resist the arbitrary and sometimes cruel structures imposed on her.
From here, Anderson begins a masterful process of manipulation. Our comfortably sympathetic reading of Alma is undermined by hints of vindictiveness, the odd stubborn moment. The previously childish Reynolds, we are reminded, is an artistic genius despite his foibles, his dresses sumptuous and brilliant. Perhaps he is not the megalomaniac we presumed; perhaps her innocence is not so simple.
Dialogues are rapid-fire, and our allegiance can switch from one line to the next, depending on a subtlety as minute as a moment of eye contact held longer than is comfortable. Starting with these seeds, we are taken on a fabulous journey into doubt, one that teases with neat answers before reverting to uncertain conclusions, beguiling and unsettling us. At the film’s centre are three magnetic performances from its principle cast. Manville’s Cyril is a frightful and powerful presence, regulating her brother and meting out access to him. Her brittle mannerisms hint at the decisive attitudes she adopts.
Krieps’s Alma is a beautifully deep invention; her glances are meaningful, her clipped and breathy deliveries belie a determination that punctures and poisons the calm world of the House of Woodcock. Finally, Day-Lewis seethes and adores, never less than utterly engrossing, and is dragged from certainty to worry just as readily as his audience. As a trio they are each cast wonderfully, and carry the film ably.
They are helped along by expert costuming from Mark Bridges, who breathes life into the stately dresses that have made Woodcock’s name, but also characterises the characters in their quieter moments. A silken pyjama set, thin-cut suit or waitress’s uniform – each immediately situates the wearer in our mind, before a line is uttered.
Phantom Thread is equally attractive in its style from the perspective of cinematography – the many colours of its wardrobe are deep and vividly realised, and the depth of its palettes are almost painterly in effect. In some moments this can draw us into the feverish experience of a character, while at others it can lull us into the stately relaxation of a silent breakfast. In short, Anderson has an extremity of control.
It is a relief that Paul Thomas Anderson has not joined his greatest performing collaborator in announcing the finality of Phantom Thread. This is a filmmaker at the peak of his powers, as he as been for some time, and a film of mesmerising potency itself.