I do not know what I expected sitting down for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread.” The film, written and directed by Anderson, stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville. It is the story of an idiosyncratic dress designer in England in the 1950s, his sister, and his relationship with a new woman. It is a serious, contemplative, movie as well as being astoundingly funny. It is this last, its humor, which I found most remarkable upon watching it.
Even as the movie opens and we meet Day-Lewis’ fastidious designer, Reynolds Woodcock, it does not seem as though this is a movie that will be full of funny moments. Woodcock is a man more than set in his ways and enabled in his issues by Cyril (Manville), his sister. In fact, it is Cyril who is tasked with dismissing Reynolds’ live-in girlfriends. When the audience watches one conversation between Cyril and Reynolds about sending a woman away, they are certainly given the impression that it is not the first time the two have had this chat.
Day-Lewis is more than mesmerizing from the first time we see him on screen. Reynolds Woodcock is a man of few words, but Day-Lewis has a way of offering both those words and his smile so that the audience feels pulled in by them. We yearn for him to talk. We yearn for him to smile. We yearn to gain his affection. We yearn to see him happy.
It is no surprise to us then that this man who seems so slow and methodical in all things, save driving, is able to quickly entice a young woman, Alma (Krieps), to go out to dinner with him, and from there to her soon moving in to his house and working with him. And so the story unspools in “Phantom Thread,” and the audiences watches the various ups and downs in their relationship and how each member in the couple—and Cyril—react to those changes.
Some of the humor comes in with Reynolds’ blunt reactions to Alma. He says things no one would expect another human being to say and does so in such a forthright manner that it is impossible to not laugh. Day-Lewis portrays this man as someone more than just stuck in his ways, Reynolds is unable to see the world from someone else’s point of view. He does what he wants in the way he wants and Cyril is there to make sure that Reynolds’ pursuing things in this fashion will still lead to success for the business and his life.
There is also a great deal of fun to be had in the moments when “Phantom Thread” gives the audience Reynolds’ point of view. Anderson offers up things like the noise Alma generates when she prepares and eats breakfast in a terribly over the top way. It ends up being both funny and makes Reynolds’ view completely understandable even if those watching know that Reynolds is making too much of it.
While Day-Lewis is certainly the lead, it would be a mistake to minimize the wonderful performances offered by both Krieps and Manville. Each woman is perfection in her role. Krieps’ Alma is, perhaps, more of a mystery than Reynolds, but the actress is no less engaging than Day-Lewis. Watching Alma grow and change over the course of “Phantom Thread,” as she experiences more of Reynolds’ world, is one of the great joys of the movie. For her part, Manville is marvelously funny as Cyril, this woman who clearly has to make up for all of her brother’s shortcomings and ensure the health and welfare of this man whom she clearly loves.
Also impressive is the fact that many of the events in the movie are a surprise. While things initially progress as one might expect, eventually they take a turn. It is a turn which, in hindsight, makes complete sense, but which also feels audacious as it occurs. It is a feat of filmmaking prowess.
Nothing in “Phantom Thread” is, seemingly, left to chance. It feels like a work that has been executed in the exact way Anderson would have it executed. Whether that is the truth or simply a reflection of the character at the film’s center is unclear. But, whether it’s Mark Bridges’ gorgeous costumes or Johnny Greenwood’s enjoyable music, everything is just so, and it all works together in the right manner.
Daniel Day-Lewis has said that this is his last film, and if that is the case, it is an admirable way to end what has been a marvelous career. As he has again shown here, the world of acting will be poorer without him.
photo credit: Focus Features