Phantom Thread begins in 1950s Fitzrovia at the breakfast table of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a renowned dressmaker with a habit for stitching hidden messages into his garments (inside his own blazer is a lock of the hair of his dead mother, whose presence is effectively the film’s own ‘phantom’). As Reynolds sketches away, he grows increasingly irritated by the interjections of Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), a young woman who we take to be his girlfriend.
Reynolds, as it turns out, doesn’t really do girlfriends. He sees women as dolls on which he can try out his beautiful dress designs; when he’s done playing with them, they are ushered out by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who is just about the only person that the short-tempered designer trusts. “What do you want to do about Johanna?” ventures Cyril to Reynolds later in the day – we get the sense that they’ve been here many times before. “She’s lovely, but the time has come.” And that’s that for Johanna.
Financially dependent on, but easily annoyed by, his upper-class clients, Reynolds makes a dash for the countryside. There, over a delightfully flirty breakfast order, he ensnares what he believes to be his newest plaything – the beautiful waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps). Back at the luxurious London townhouse that doubles as Reynold’s home and studio, it seems inevitable that Alma will arrive at the same fate as her predecessors. Alma, however, has other ideas about how the relationship will play out.
There are four individuals in want of special commendation for their contributions to Phantom Thread. The first is director Paul Thomas Anderson, who also acts as screenwriter and cinematographer. It’s fitting (and fittingly perverse) that a film about a controlling artist should exhibit such tight control over every aspect of its being – the script is sharp, the images elegantly composed – but, as fun as it is watching a master at work, Anderson’s style never comes across as overbearing or detached. He understands the visceral quality of the extreme close up and when to use it, and knows that buttering toast can be just as painful to the ear as nails on a chalkboard.
The second individual worthy of praise is Anderson’s indispensable collaborator Jonny Greenwood, whose orchestral score gives Phantom Thread so much of its distinctive character. Greenwood’s music is just as elusive as the rest of the film: sometimes lush, sometimes haunting, and often tragically romantic.
The obvious third star is Daniel Day-Lewis, who is just as brilliant as he’s always been. He brings to Reynolds Woodcock a vulnerability that might, in the hands of a lesser actor, been lost under the more obvious cruelty and fastidiousness of the character. Beneath the self-styled image of a controlling monster, Day-Lewis shows us a bolshie little boy unable to let go of his mother. If this does prove to be his last role – Day-Lewis announced his retirement during the film’s production – it deserves to go down as one of his best.
But the film’s real star is Vicky Krieps, who you’d think had been doing this stuff just as long as Day-Lewis from the fluency of her performance. She takes on a difficult role – a muse character who refuses to submit to his whims, exposed but defiant, playful and provocative – and plays it with such effortlessness it’s easy to forget she’s acting at all. She’s also exceptionally funny, and her repartee with Day-Lewis and Manville transforms the film from weighty chamber drama to something altogether more enjoyable.
What exactly is that something? It’s hard to say – Phantom Thread is a slippery film. It’s at once a parable about the toxicity of the male artist, a period rom-com, a Henry James ghost story, and perhaps the kinkiest film ever made to feature no sex. At one point, it seems to be going down the path of feminist revenge tale (one, it should be noted, that has a lot more in common with Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled than just its exquisitely designed costumes). But even then the film doesn’t play by the rules, settling on a subtly subversive conclusion that is both satisfying and troubling in equal measure.
It’s only in these last scenes that the genius of Phantom Thread truly snaps into place; earlier sequences occasionally meander, even drag. That said, I have a sneaking suspicion that the film’s payoff might lend itself to subsequent viewings – the ending works on first watch as a twist of sorts, but also provides a fascinating new lens through which to watch the film. Though Phantom Thread isn’t quite Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film, it might just be his most surprising.
Image: Universal Pictures