This slow, beautifully filmed period piece packs a sly wallop. My interest never wavered in anticipation of a story. The story is more of a character analysis on one end, and a crafty power marriage dance on the other. Parts are extremely funny.
Set in a mid-century haute-couture London scene, “Phantom Thread” meanders through seaside hotels, castle-like estates, and the many-floored Victorian art house of Woodcock.
Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock ( Daniel Day-Lewis ) is a demanding dress designer. He is in supreme control of both his craft and his environment. He sews secret talismans within the seams of his creations. He suffers from misophonia.
Textured frames show us Reynold’s own grooming and dining idiosyncrasies, which are more intriguing than boorish. He derides pastries as “ sludggy things”. His asparagus is preferred with salt and oil, his tomato juice and martini with lemon. Amongst the tea, linen, and the roses, he tells his current muse that his day can not begin with confrontation. He is in charge. She will soon be tossed aside by the man who calls himself “ a confirmed bachelor”. He adds that she need not pout: “ marriage would make him deceitful”. One of my favorite lines, in this film without many, comes next: “Expectations of others cause heartache, I think.”
Meticulously dressed himself in hand-tied gray neckwear and layers of finery, topped with a long overcoat, Day-Lewis is a 60 year-old fashion plate: a series of these images could cause swoons from fashion aficionados. One particular frame has Daniel Day-Lewis in profile with the sea outside the window. It is arresting in import. His charmed life will come to what, we ask. There is a subtle tension that keeps us interested.
This man has an appetite: Welsh rarebit, bacon, eggs, scones and sausages – all in one sitting. Jam, but not strawberry, and lapsang tea are perfectly served by a smitten and equally smited waitress. Our real story begins.
An indefatigable waitress, a charming Vicky Krieps, takes copious notes on his order, and he in turn rakishly tells her he will keep her notations. She writes on his bill, “For the hungry boy, my name is Alma.” A few fast car drives, a lesson in custard sauces and a taking of measurements provide Reynolds with another muse, but one that will become his equal.
Woodcock himself dresses countesses and heiresses. His artist’s ego is matched by his elder sister’s. Cyril , played beautifully by Lesley Manville, begins as a cypher and protectress. She stands up to her brother when he gets too pushy, and she respects and likes Alma when she acts in kind. “No one likes to be dismissed”, she instructs her brother. Manville expertly delivers her most forceful line: “ Don’t pick a fight with me~ you will end up on the floor.”
Gothic elements are here. And I like them, always. The phantom of “Phantom Thread” at first is our protagonist’s mother: a ghostly vision in her second wedding dress. Her son, R. Jeremiah Woodcock ( Daniel Day-Lewis) had fashioned her dress when he was sixteen. She weighs on him still. Their dead mother’s spirit hovers over sister and brother. Reynold dreams of their mother appearing to him, “reaching out to us”. He keeps a lock of her hair sewn in the linings of his garments.
He tells Alma that his mother taught him his trade. Alma wants to be the recipient of this kind of devotion. She plots with my favorite gothic element: the gilled mushroom.
Director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson shines his brightest yet with “Phantom Thread”. All is sensual, rather than sexual. ( even the smells). Alma is both innocent and conniving. Reynold puts his mother’s clothes on her, and she whispers: “ Whatever you do, do it carefully.”
The film uses a conversation, almost interview like, with a person we only later find out is the estate doctor. “I have given him every piece of me,” Alma tells the doctor.
Alma, the foreign bride, has now become the phantom thread and supplants mama. Alma is as attuned to detail, as Reynold is. The Woodcock name is upheld, and he is complicit in their dangerous game which keeps his creativity flowing.
All of this visual delight: candle light, almost set tableaux, and especially, the faces of Krieps and Day-Lewis are matched with a glorious score. The music is worth the ticket price. Jonny Greenwood, as music director, is Oscar worthy.
Daniel Day-Lewis is at his best as he turns all persnickety over breakfast noise. While admonishing the over abundance of butter, Reynold forgets that Alma “ can stand endlessly”. She plays his bullying and rudeness with perseverance and strategy. He likes the dead watching over the living, and she likes the living watching over the near dead. Power is balanced.
The wife he now needs, Alma, saves the business art house and his creative life and he, who is cognoscent of all details, knows this. Their sly smiles toy with death and lend a sexual chord that kinks this film up a notch. I was mesmerized.