Phantom Thread

February, 2018, Drama


Interpreting writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson films presents a challenge to movie audiences; even the seemingly straight forward Hard Eight, his directorial debut, came marinated in a point of view which was to resurface again and again his later work. From Boogie Nights through Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and The Master to the horrifyingly brilliant There Will Be Blood, Anderson worldview seems permeated by a special appreciation of (if not reverence for) the often irrational, mystifying behavior of certain characters that emerge from his scripts. That tendency is on full display in his latest effort, but with more benign results.

Daniel Day Lewis delivers another mesmerizing performance here as Reynolds Woodcock, a brilliant and successful designer of couture clothing in mid-50’s London. In partnership with his glacially-composed sister Cyril (Leslie Manville), Woodcock creates elegant dresses for elegant women who return year after year to be dressed, flattered and browbeaten by Woodcock’s imperious manner and  maniacally obsessive commitment to his talent. He’s surrounded by women and impervious to their allure - - until he’s captivated by Alma, (Vicky Krieps) a waitress who serves him one morning at a small restaurant near his country home. He finds her quiet, bemused manner and uncomplicated freshness appealing, first as a model, then muse, then lover. How will this haughty, sophisticated control freak adjust to life with someone so appealing uncomplicated?

But Woodcock’s soon frustrated by Alma’s unwillingness to bow to his will. Cyril has always catered to his idiosyncrasies, so why should Alma be different? His annoyance sours into petulant anger and it takes a sudden illness to shake Woodcock’s arrogant self-confidence. He mellows, proposes and they wed, but soon Woodcock lapses back into mean-spirited self-absorption. Only a subsequent illness hints at a way forward  and the film ends with an unspoken but tentative hopefulness.

The performances of Thread’s female leads are remarkable. Cyril’s Oscar-nominated icy cordiality counterbalances Alma’s insouciance at every turn and their differing responses to Woodcock’s brand of domestic tyranny create an understated tension that sustains the storyline from start to finish.

Oddly enough, Lewis’ performance may be off-putting,  epitomizing as it does that brand of artistic brilliance unable to recognize the difference between the legitimate conditions required by a creative personality vs. the egoistic demands of someone whose gifts have grown inherently self-absorbed. Lewis insists that this is his last film and if that turns out to be true, moviegoers will be deprived of the finest actor of his generation. As he nears his 51st birthday, lets hope this 3-time Oscar winner doesn’t deprive us of another decade or more of compelling work.

In every detail from cinematography to production values to a musical score that enlivens the movie’s action, Phantom Thread deserves the half-dozen Oscar nominations it’s received for directing, acting, musical score, costume design and best picture.

The Verdict? A small gem whose off-putting premise isn’t likely to be widely seen or admired.

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