Phantom Thread – movie review

by James Robins / 30 January, 2018
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A society dressmaker finds himself pinned down by his feelings for a working-class waitress. 

Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s (The Master, Inherent Vice) eighth film, is a portrait of contested power and sly deceit set among the needles and pursed lips of a 1950s London couture house. The man who stitches his name into the lining of these works of art, worn by royals and aristocrats alike, is Reynolds J Woodcock.

On paper, Woodcock would be an almost Wodehouse-ian prospect, but the role is inhabited by Daniel Day-Lewis, his crown of silvered hair swept back, cuffs immaculately pressed and poise to the fore. Reynolds exudes control alongside his sister Cyril (an imperious Lesley Manville), and the house thrives under their domination.

Muses, mistresses and models are quickly dismissed when they become grating and start to affect Reynolds’s concentration. Then there’s Alma (Vicky Krieps), a blushing working-class waitress seduced by Reynolds during the breakfast service at a seaside hotel. It’s fitting, then, that food opens and closes the film. The last supper carries just as much promise – and threat – as the first.

Almost every one of Reynolds’s lines is an instruction. An order. A command. But Alma refuses to submit. She will not lie flat under his manicured thumb. She rebels quietly, with a murmured rebuke and a twitch of a smile that suggests, perversely, she’s enjoying his comeuppance. “Whatever you do,” she warns, “do it carefully.” (In this respect, Phantom Thread is in similar company to Mother!, in its tearing down of corrupting male genius.)

There is real aesthetic grandeur here, and a strangeness in its dreamlike tone. Its pleasures and thrills are so subtle as to be nearly invisible, like a pulse that quickens at a touch. The psychotic in the psycho­drama is still in evidence, but it’s buried under layers of vintage lace, soft flannel and lush velvet. As Reynolds mutters, “I have a bad feeling … Nothing I can put my finger on.”

Phantom Thread is reportedly Day-Lewis’ last film, as he has announced his retirement. And as this comes from a man who picks roles with meticulous care, then plunges into them with almost zealous devotion, we dare not doubt him. His swansong may not be the most fitting send-off (there is nothing to match the showy rage of Anderson’s There Will be Blood, for example), but it heralds the arrival of Krieps, a Luxembourger with a handful of English-language credits, as someone who may fill the void.

At the film’s core is a bloody emotional conflict, a nuclear exchange of immovable personalities. By a sliver of a hair, Krieps is more impressive than Day-Lewis, more beguiling and, by the end of this entrancing picture, more terrifying.

IN CINEMAS FEBRUARY 1

★★★★★

This article was first published in the February 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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