Because of not only their greatness but also their rareness, Daniel Day-Lewis performances are something to be richly savored—and that goes doubly for his turn in Phantom Thread, given that the illustrious Academy Award-winner has announced that his role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s historical character study will be his last.
Throughout a career that has few equals, Day-Lewis has exhibited a deft versatility, and exuded a prone-to-explode intensity, that’s awe-inspiring, be it as the cerebral palsy-afflicted Christy Brown in My Left Foot, as gang leader Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York, as American president Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, or as milkshake-drinking oil magnate Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, his prior collaboration with Anderson. Along with Meryl Streep, he’s modern cinema’s reigning Best Actor Alive, and his excellence is enhanced, to a degree, by the scarceness of his output, making each new effort a veritable cinematic event.
Thus Phantom Thread’s arrival elicits both anticipation for seeing a master at work, and sorrow from recognizing that such an experience won’t be had again. Divorced from those expectations and lamentations, however, it’s simply a tremendous joy to behold—a partnership between two artists so in tune with each other’s creative impulses that the result is something wholly unique, and spellbinding. Far removed from the grandness of There Will Be Blood (or most of Day-Lewis’ other recent projects), the acting-directing duo’s latest is most reminiscent of early David Lean, a Brief Encounter-esque romance that doubles as an unconventional investigation of passion, need and co-dependency. As refined as the clothes that its protagonist makes, it is, in its own modest, eccentric, self-contained way, just about perfect.
Written and directed by Anderson with confidence and delicacy, Phantom Thread concerns Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), an eminent dressmaker in 1950s London who runs his “house”—a multi-story building that doubles as his workshop and home, and whose interior revolves around a twisting staircase—with the same fastidiousness that he organizes his day-to-day existence. Such fussiness is apparent from his introduction prepping himself in the morning: shaving, clipping ear hairs, and donning his socks and trousers. Its also evident from his ensuing breakfast with his sister and right-hand woman, Cyril (Lesley Manville), whom he lovingly refers to as “my old so-and-so,” as well as his current girlfriend, whose interest in addressing his aloofness sparks contempt in Reynolds. “I simply don’t have time for confrontations,” he seethes in an intimidatingly urbane manner, thereby ending whatever affair they had temporarily shared.
It’s not the last morning meal that’ll be disturbed by unwanted crunching, clanking and chatter, as Reynolds’ orderly world is upended shortly thereafter when, while dining out at a restaurant, he’s served by a clumsy waitress named Alma (stunning newcomer Vicky Krieps). He is, immediately and instinctively, smitten. A dinner date and impromptu after-hours dress fitting later, and they’re a couple, albeit of a far-from-ordinary sort.
Alma seems primarily entranced by Reynolds’ formidable talent—and, more crucially still, by how he sees the best in her, and wishes to draw it out through his stunning outfits. Reynolds, meanwhile, finds in Alma an ideal model for his garments, and an independent woman who bristles at simply kowtowing to his every finicky whim, even as she remains, to a large extent, enthralled by—and loyal to—him. It’s no wonder that, for a man who dreams of his deceased mother reaching out to him from the grave, and who always carries a picture of her with him, Reynolds is so taken with Alma: she’s a devoted nurturer who’s also not afraid to put him in his place.
That last feature is key to Phantom Thread’s plot (which is framed by a fireside chat between Alma and an unseen individual), and to its portrait of Reynolds and Alma’s unusual amour, which blossoms in ways that are idiosyncratic, thorny, and yet perfectly in tune with its subjects’ psychological make-ups. I’ll speak no more of the film’s narrative surprises, except to say that what Anderson sculpts with his precise script—marked by not a single wasted line, exchange or incident—is a novel inquiry into the literal and figurative ties that bind us to one another. Those bonds are at once as neat, tidy and graceful as the stitching of the glamorous dresses he designs (for, among others, his woozy benefactor and continental royalty), and yet subtly jagged, developing in directions that neither Reynolds nor Alma quite expected, but, unbeknownst to them—at least consciously—they both desperately required.
Blow-ups over impromptu homemade dinners and New Year’s Eve parties soon materialize around the couple’s unlikely betrothal, which is viewed with steely detachment by Cyril, who’s portrayed by Manville with such a cool, cutting stiff upper lip that she practically steals every scene she’s in—including one in which she oversees the completion of a dress while Reynolds recovers from a stunning (and significant) illness, shot by Anderson in a protracted single take of gliding, spinning majesty.
Marked by a subdued color palette, urgent close-ups, and transitional fades, all of it set to Jonny Greenwood’s score of rapturous orchestral arrangements, lush piano and strident strings, Anderson’s style is meticulous and elegant, allowing his performers room to breathe within a scrupulous, breathtaking aesthetic structure. Moreover, he lavishes as much love on Reynolds’ clothes as on his characters, recognizing that the former—often featuring secrets sewn into them by their maker—are intimate reflections, and extensions, of those who create and wear them.
And then there is Day-Lewis, commanding the screen with a volatile sophistication that conveys the protagonist’s complicated inner turmoil, as well as his euphoric-destructive feelings for Alma. His Reynolds is like a kettle on the stove, simmering intently until, periodically, it reaches its steam-blowing boiling point, and Day-Lewis embodies him with all-consuming forcefulness. It’s a performance of such concentration and commitment that it achieves the rare feat of seeming completely and utterly effortless, whether he’s alone or opposite the magnetic Krieps, who’s ably up to the challenge of being the soft-yet-prickly yin to Day-Lewis’ imposing yang.
A princess fairy tale reimagined as a complex, incisive examination of romantic power dynamics and the dark, unpredictable heart of desire, Phantom Thread is, like its renowned star, a genuine one-of-a-kind film—and, consequently, a fitting swan song for one of Hollywood’s all-time legends.