’Whatever you do, do it carefully.'
The machinations of romantic human relationships are one of the foundation stones of storytelling, and certainly of cinema. We love to be swept up in the drama and fantasy of two people in love, but often this comes at the cost of authenticity or an ugly truth. We may be a species that craves human contact and connection, but deep down we still engage in a battle for possession and dominance over one another. This battle sits at the heart of ‘Phantom Thread’, the latest Oscar-nominated film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (‘There Will Be Blood’, ‘The Master’, ‘Boogie Nights’). While any ordinary filmmaker would head towards the lighter side of love and relationships, Anderson does what Anderson always does - plots a course for darker and dangerous waters, and takes us in to find out what else might be lurking.
Set in 1950’s London, ‘Phantom Thread’ explores an unlikely relationship between immigrant waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) and boutique fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). Beguiled by his quiet intensity and passion, Alma is drawn into Reynolds’ world, defined entirely by the walls of his lavish apartment and studio, overseen by his devoted and heavily involved sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). However, the further down the rabbit hole of his world she goes, Alma begins to realise that her place in Reynolds’ life is far from secure, and she must work to define her position within his work and affection, or lose him completely.
Every film from Paul Thomas Anderson is an event, and ‘Phantom Thread’ easily lives up to these enormous expectations. From the moment it begins, it holds you enraptured with its meticulous beauty and seething undercurrent, built around a remarkable trio of characters engaged in a dance of dominance performed with pinpoint precision. This isn’t a groundbreaking film, but that isn’t its intention. Rather, ‘Phantom Thread’ takes everything that makes cinema distinct and sublime, and polishes it to the finest of edges, all employed to explore how obsession and love, art and domesticity, private and public work to harmonise with one another and destroy each other. Anderson’s story is a delicate balance between the said and unsaid, the moments of silence as thunderous as the perfectly-calibrated barbs hidden in the dialogue. The craft of the film is impeccable, with Anderson acting as cinematographer to ensure his exacting vision, and Johnny Greenwood’s magnificent score turning the film into a symphony of the senses. Mark Bridges’ extraordinary costume design and Mark Tildesley’s production design both bring the world of 50s fashion to life while providing visual essays on every character, so that not a moment of colour or texture is wasted.
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In fact, as sublime a piece of filmmaking as ‘Phantom Thread’ is, everything is in service of this as a character study, and by focusing on these three figures, the film has the room to examine every idiosyncrasy and flaw. Reynolds and Alma are creatures of different habits and worlds, somehow drawn together for reasons neither can understand. She is both complementary and antithesis to his philosophy and work ethic, and yet the silent violence in their relationship belies something more complex. What Anderson says about relationships, especially co-dependent ones (as is the case between Reynolds and Cyril) is unforgiving and unflinching, making the sensual richness of the film all the more potent. Deliciously though, it’s also a surprisingly funny film, a black romantic comedy of people politely ripping the flesh off one another. There is much to be mined from the rigid formality of Reynolds and Cyril, and the free impulsiveness of Alma, all colliding with one other, influencing and infuriating. And Anderson wants us to laugh, allowing moments that border on slapstick and a tremendous use of sound that amplifies both the humour and the tension all at once. Into this already intoxicating mix is a genuine sense of romance, albeit a complex one that we ride as much as Alma does. Only a director of Anderson’s calibre could throw all these balls into play and spin them into a juggling act with such grace and ease. His direction is absolutely impeccable, and many sequences are cinematic masterclasses.
The last ingredients are the extraordinary performances, each as remarkable as the other. We often think of Daniel Day-Lewis as one of the best actors of all time, but it’s easy to forget exactly why. What his performance in ‘Phantom Thread’ reminds you is that it isn’t about fire and brimstone, about big speeches spoken in pontificating tones, but in his meticulous detail and tremendous sense of humour. Reynolds Woodcock is an intoxicating figure because of the twinkle in his eye, and after leading him to his greatest performance in ‘There Will Be Blood’, Anderson once again allows Day-Lewis to show his gentleness and playfulness amongst his deep wells of emotion. If this really is his last performance, then he’s going out with one hell of a bang. Vicky Krieps holds the heart of the film in the palm of her hand as Alma, really the protagonist of the film. Her performance is equally as playful and detailed, driven by a silent determination and will to survive. The honesty of her performance is breathtaking against the formality of the world she’s been drawn into, and her chemistry with Day-Lewis is delicious. Completing this trio, Lesley Manville takes a character that could have fallen into cliché and raises it to the heavens. We’ve seen characters like Cyril before, but Manville finds a hidden depth, the fury of a life devoted to another with no reward for herself. There is no explosion, no breakdown, just a quiet and considered poise that sits on the brink of eruption. The gender politics and chemistry between these three characters is amplified by the enormous respect these three actors have for one another, and watching them work and inspire and provoke one another is electrifying.
From the moment it begins, it holds you enraptured with its meticulous beauty and seething undercurrent, built around a remarkable trio of characters engaged in a dance of dominance performed with pin-point precision.
I adored every single second of ‘Phantom Thread’. It is everything I want in a film: to be placed in the hands of a master and guided through a sensorial symphony of image, character and storytelling. Exquisite, meticulous, delicious, passionate and wickedly funny, it sweeps you up on its romanticism while moving with the precision of an animal of prey, culminating in a surprising and sublime final act that left me reeling with delight. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the great American artists of our time, and ‘Phantom Thread’ is another classic from a man seemingly incapable of delivering anything less.