Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance
Direction: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Runtime: 2h 10min
Paul Thomas Anderson has proven tough to pin down as a filmmaker. Putting his own spin on Scorsese and Altman with such seminal films as Boogie Nights and Magnolia, he veered into completely different directions with Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice. While all have had their pluses and minuses, I’ve never been able to identify a consistent tone or a specific voice in his work. That’s totally fine, as many great directors have eclectic resumes, but with Anderson, I keep wanting him to return to the infectious energy of Boogie Nights and have more often than not felt a bit disappointed. It’s like when Scorsese made The Age of Innocence. I just didn’t care to see his take on doilies and corsets. It’s Scorsese! Bring on the mobsters and the intimidation! Is it unfair for me to want a director to stay in his/her lane? Of course, but I prefer it when people play to their strengths. I mean, did we really need an Annie directed by John Huston? Was the world really hungry for Sam Raimi’s take on baseball with for The Love of the Game? Or Oliver Stone’s vision of a sword and sandals epic with Alexander? So is it too much to ask that I want to see a Paul Thomas Anderson movie where the characters wear jeans and t-shirts manufactured sometime in the new millennium?
Well, with his latest film, Phantom Thread, we’re stuck in prim and proper 1950s London, where fictional high fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) presides over his all-female staff hand-sewing immaculate dresses for the rich and famous. When we meet Reynolds, he’s living with his sister/business partner Cyril (Leslie Manville) and a wife tired of his suffocating control over his surroundings. A hardcore narcissist, Reynolds cannot abide any noise at the breakfast table, not even the sound of butter being spread on toast. He demands the space to sketch but he needs women for sex, for some level of companionship, and to act as his muse. Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps) a server he meets at a countryside cafe one day. Instantly smitten with her, he coaxes her to his London flat where she will model his clothes, inspire him, and yes, stay dead silent during the morning meals. Soon enough, like the others before her, Alma slowly dies inside.
The power dynamic between Reynolds and Alma, as well as that between Cyril, who knows where all the bodies are buried, and the pair, constitutes the film’s main storyline. As such, Phantom Thread takes its sweet time getting to the “good stuff”, which proves to be almost as perverse and twisted as a Michael Haneke film. For a long stretch, the film crawls along quite slowly, but Anderson carefully, painstakingly lays out the push and pull of the central relationship. Every slight, every stinging formality stings just a little, and both Day-Lewis and Krieps beautifully communicate their complicated feelings. Manville, a Mike Leigh regular, could teach a Master Class in focus and stillness. Her hard stares and assuredness prove mesmerizing and chilling. Krieps, unknown to me before this, conveys so much with a glance or a subtle facial tic, I felt willing to follow her character anywhere.
This is one gorgeous looking movie, from the drop-dead, period specific costume design by Mark Bridges, the clean lines of Woodcock’s studio and wildly over-the-top New Year’s celebration scene provided by production designer Mark Tildesley, to the rich cinematography by none other than Anderson himself. If you’re into mid-century chic, this movie will hit that sweet spot. I’m also giving a standing ovation to Anderson’s regular composer, Jonny Greenwood, who delivers memorable, stunning music to the film. It may sound somewhat conventional, but it fits the mood and characters perfectly.
Without spoiling anything, the film takes a strange turn, exposing its darker and richer themes. It’s almost worth the long wait it takes to get there, although I would have preferred a slightly shorter build-up. Regardless, it’s the type of film that feels like a long slog, but after sleeping on it, I came to admire it more and more. Day-Lewis brings just enough sweet charm to his fairly mean-spirited character to make you believe he’s in love with Alma. Krieps, not unlike Meryl Streep in The Post, slowly emerges as a feminist character in a pre-feminist era, and it’s quite lovely to see. Manville tears up the screen with her direct gaze.
For those who prefer a little more movement in their movies, this may not be the best choice. It’s still, and stifling, but also often funny and artful in its presentation of a distant yet co-dependent relationship. In its old-fashioned way, there’s something new here.