You expect a film with Daniel Day-Lewis in it is going to be substantial, meticulously crafted and have him squarely in the centre of the story. Phantom Thread certainly showcases his skills as a method actor but lacks drama and substance.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood), Day-Lewis plays couturier Reynolds Woodcock, fastidious and complacent in his professional success. Designing for royalty, he is allowed to be an autocrat in his own world. All pander to his self-absorbed needs, none more so than staunch ally sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). It is she who arranges for his latest ‘model’ to quietly move on when he tires of her, this indulgence seen as necessary to protect his position as creative genius.
This is a common trope about artistic people who are successful in their field. They can get away with any sort of behaviour behind closed doors because they are so revered by the outside world. We see that Reynolds is a spoiled boy in the guise of a man, unable to get over his grief at his mother’s death and we suspect she did much to cosset and indulge him. Cyril knows that her place in the world is maintained by Reynold’s success and with droll acceptance, gives him exactly what he needs but no maternal love.
All seems to be as usual when waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) enters his world. Smitten, Reynolds persuades her to become his model and muse, sweeping her up into a rarefied world of opulence and privilege. Muse is not really the right word for it though, as it is clear that he is not inspired by who she is, he simply needs a doll to dress. Alma is not like others though and is not content to tiptoe around Reynolds sensitivities.
Although Day-Lewis is getting all the acclaim for this film, including a nomination for best actor Oscar and much talk around this purportedly being his last performance before retirement, it is Alma, portrayed with studied ambiguity by Krieps, who is the heart of the narrative. We are never quite sure of her motives or needs but the interdependency of her relationship with Reynolds is both a comfort and a destructive force for them. Krieps was perplexingly overlooked for an Oscar nomination although Leslie Manville was not, losing the best supporting female actor Oscar to Allison Janney.
Woven through the story is a thread about hidden messages in the gowns that Reynolds makes (puns fully intended), the ‘phantom threads’ of the title. Although fascinating, it is a subtext that seems to go nowhere, perhaps acting as a metaphor for the influences that those around us have on our lives, lying hidden in the cuffs and hems of memory.
Quietly beautiful and finely crafted, Phantom Thread has less emotional and narrative impact than it should have. I hope it’s not the performance Day-Lewis ends his career on.
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