Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville
Initial Thoughts: Though not for everyone, this ravishing, sensual film was startlingly tremendous. I had expectations of being wowed but had no idea that, weeks later, I’d still feel haunted by the viewing I attended. The pacing is often maddeningly slow though, so I can totally understand that this isn’t a film for those who prefer a more driving pace and tied-with-a-bow resolutions.
**Spoilers below! If you think you’d like to give this film a watch, stop now and then return afterwards!**
How difficult it was to manage my expectations for this film. It wasn’t one that was initially on my radar—I’d seen a few trailer videos on YouTube, but it wasn’t until a friend mentioned he was waiting out the lame offerings at the theater until this was released that I decided to look into it. How could I have missed any press about this? I adore Daniel Day-Lewis, and with this set to be his proverbial swan-song, I would’ve felt very foolish missing out on the opportunity to see this played on the big screen of my favorite “Movie Palace” as The State Theater is affectionately called.
(If you’re a local to the Modesto/Stanislaus County area and you’re not going to The State, what’re you doing with your life? It’s seriously gorgeous inside. The movie selection is more diverse than what you’ll encounter in the bigger chain-style movie theaters. They serve fresh butter on their popcorn, and they’ve got a decent adult-beverage selection.)
I went to see ‘Phantom Thread’ on my birthday. I wanted to write about it that afternoon, but as someone who tends to celebrate the occasion stretched out over a few days (it happen to be a Friday this year too), there was much to do, and my plans to talk about this film fell by the wayside. I think this was actually a good thing as it’s given me a great experience to really digest this material and to consider many aspects instead of just gushing over DDL’s performance as I am wont to do.
Before we delve into the thick of things, let’s indulge in the obligatory IMDb synopsis, shall we?
Set in the glamour of 1950s post-war London, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) are at the center of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutants, and dames with the distinct style of The House of Woodcock. Women come and go through Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young, strong-willed woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes a fixture in his life as his muse and lover. Once controlled and planned, he finds his carefully tailored life disrupted by love.
I feel like there’s so much more to the story than the above synopsis can capture. This movie carefully illustrates the battle of wills between a woman who loves a man and a man who loves his craft above all. Throughout the story there are struggles: Reynolds, a man of a certain age who is very attached to his process and way of life, struggles to maintain his ways after a new muse becomes a fixture in his house. Cyril must navigate Reynolds’ moods as well as his process and has also become the resident muse-wrangler (though to say Cyril struggles with anything feels mildly ridiculous as she is, indisputably, the most intimidating and quietly mighty figure of the film). And Alma struggles to make herself a force rather than simply a fixture in Reynolds’ life as well her desire to be needed by a man who may love her but does not necessarily need her.
Human beings. What complicated creatures.
‘Phantom Thread’ is the thirty-seventh credit for Paul Thomas Anderson, and it may very well be his best yet. For all his work, there are a few stand-outs for me personally; ‘There Will Be Blood’ is his crowning jewel, with films like ‘Boogie Nights’ and ‘The Master’ coming in as close second-and-thirds. Critics of this film have all bandied about references to both Kubrick and Hitchcock in the shooting style and composition of scenes. They’re entirely right. It was a delight to feel, as an audience member, that we were lifting the veil from these private moments to peer through a keyhole and watch something intangible become something very real and physically present. The musical stylings were also lovely—something we’ve come to expect when Jonny Green participates in a film (when he’s not busy wooing hipsters with his musical finesse a la Radiohead). Even though the action of the film can sometimes be slow (maddeningly so, as I mentioned before), the audience member never feels removed; there is a presence to this film that refuses to let one settle back in any sort of detachment.
I could spend several more pages waxing romantic when it comes to Day-Lewis’ performance. He’s a genius. A true master of his craft. He’s capable of something so few performers ever really get to tap into; he’s transformative almost to the point of real anonymity. Does anyone know the real Daniel Day-Lewis? [Side note: I know all about the method-acting, and I’m sure during the process he’s maddening and downright impossible, but frankly… greater concessions have indeed been given for eccentricity and will continue to be given long after DDL is gone, so… You’re perfect DDL. Don’t go changing.] Having heard the chatter that this is DDL’s last film, I’ll admit, I was a bit disappointed, at first, leaving this film. Not because of the film itself, but because it’s hard to imagine DDL not leaving the acting world on a larger personality like Bill The Butcher. Having given it some reflection though, it was a beautiful role/performance for a swan-song, and if he really does stay retired, we’re so lucky to have his body of work as is. It’s common knowledge at this point that this role did take a toll on him emotionally, and so I’ll not be surprised if he is actually finished. But as a devoted fan, I’m always down for a few more movies…
The actor I’m truly moved to speak about is Lesley Manville. What a truly tremendous personality. I’ve seen a bit of her work in the past, but it wasn’t until the recent re-introduction of Manville into my life via the Hulu TV show ‘Harlots’ that I recognized what a formidable presence she is. I can’t say that ‘Harlots’ is a worthwhile watch, but if you come across some clips of Manville as Lydia Quigley… They’re worth checking out. Cyril Woodcock is not a Yes-Woman, and there are a thousand unspoken words in that cutting stare of hers—a look so sharp you’d slice your finger open on it. I don’t imagine anyone thinks they could pull anything over on Cyril, not that she’d give you an inch to do so. She’s also incredibly elegant, but that much should be so obvious as she is Reynolds’ sister. I hope she doesn’t also have plans for retirement as I would like to see her in many more movies!
I would be doing a disservice to omit Vicky Krieps from this review—even though I wouldn’t mind doing so, as her character Alma was not a particular favorite of mine. There’s much to be argued when considering Alma a feminist hero in this tale. Of course partners of creative geniuses get a raw deal; as alluring and romantic that sort of mania may appear, it wears on a person after a while, and the character of Alma seems determined not to let the glow of initial courtship diminish. How she goes about that, well, it’s dubious at best and dangerous at its worst. I found the controversial mushroom omelet to be a bit perverse and bordering on Munchausen-Syndrome-By-Proxy territory. There is also an underlying coldness to her demeanor that I can’t figure the ownership of… Is Alma a bit cold or is that Kreips? It’s not a hard frostiness but something barely imperceptible that makes her hard to like and sympathize with for me personally.
‘Phantom Thread’ was a bit more gothic-love-story-mystery than I had anticipated, especially with the inclusion of Reynolds’ mother during his fever-dream state later in the film, but this served only to enhance and not detract. My most favorite aspect was the love affair between Reynolds and his work—especially the charming detail of putting secrets into the linings of his work. The ‘Never Cursed’ inclusion into the wedding dress of the princess set me to swoon. This is a romantic movie, but not in the conventional sense. I’m very glad to have seen it. I hope you’ll feel the same.