IN what is expected to be his swansong, Daniel Day-Lewis reunites with his There Will Be Blood collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread, a beautifully-made insight into the world of couture in 1950s London.
The always impressive Day-Lewis caps off his career with his portrayal of Reynolds Woodcock, a highly successful designer of dresses with members of royalty among his customers.
Though his professional life is successful, the same cannot be said for his private life.
At the start his frosty attitude regarding stodgy cakes being given to him at breakfast appears to be the catalyst to a relationship ending. This appears approved by Cyril (Lesley Manville), his sister who seems to have a form of control over him.
During a visit to a restaurant, his order is taken by a somewhat clumsy waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) and almost immediately asks if she wants to have dinner with him. Before long, he is seen weighing her for dresses and she moves into his home which is also his workplace.
However, Reynolds’ professionalism and insistence on perfection brings instability and the relationship is tested due to his truculence. Unlike his previous lover, Alma remains committed to him even as she struggles to adjust to the work ethic the man she loves instills upon.
Back in 2014, Anderson released Inherent Vice, which was his first disappointment as a director in a career that also includes Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and The Master. In spite of that, there was a confidence that Anderson would recover quickly and he has indeed proven that point with what is likely his finest achievement of this decade.
As he’s done in the past with the porn industry, the oil boom and a fictionalized religious movement, Anderson presents a world where characters are placed in their own world, barely open to a select few and carefully detailing the respective actions this lifestyle entails.
As a director, he is responsible for crafting some memorable moments which is linked to voyeurism, such as a wonderful scene in which while looking over his models, he quickly turns and observes through a peephole via extreme close-up Alma showing off his design to the gazing audience, Alma seemingly aware of.
Several scenes follow involving Reynolds looking at Alma, this time with her not aware, once when she storms out of an argument and at a New Year’s bash when Reynolds locates her among the partying crowd.
Demonstrating the interesting characteristics of Reynolds, on occasion, Reynolds is seen with varying behaviors observing how his work is presented demonstrating a meticulous approach as he introduces Alma to his profession and his attitude varying from delighted to frustrated as his work is presented.
The strongest scenes depict the often intense relationship between Reynolds and Alma, starting with a lightly funny scene in which Reynolds whilst sketching struggles to concentrate due to her doing something innocently as scraping her toast. This is followed by Cyril, whom he refers to as his so-and-so, maintaining that if his tasks at breakfast fail, the whole day fails too, demonstrating the hold she appears to have on him.
In perhaps the film’s defining sequence, Alma, ignoring the advice Cyril gives, has her and the staff leaving so she can surprise Reynolds with dinner when he returns, even though he is known for his hatred of such unprepared activity.
After observing the situation with a look of revulsion, dinner is served yet what appears as a kind gesture is replaced by a blazing argument during which he accuses of being a spy intruding in his carefully-structured life.
This interpretation makes this one of Day-Lewis’s most interesting characters given this obsession with work and why he would allow such harmless behavior taint his personal life with this kind-hearted woman.
Whether its analysing Alma’s posture, demanding a drunken countess return a dress or ordering an excessive breakfast, Day-Lewis brings to life the character throughout with a flair that makes it a genuine loss to cinema if he indeed goes through his promise of retirement.
As the younger lover, Krieps stands on her own two feet against the might of Day-Lewis, bringing a subtlety to begin that gradually turns into someone effectively fighting to hold on to something dear.
Manville is also effective as the stern sister whose appearance in her brother’s life may be beneficial professionally but comes across as an adversary regarding his private matters, though her recent Oscar nomination does seem unfair on Krieps who comes across as much more engaging.
Though different films, Anderson’s examination of how obsession can affect people’s relationships with others is similar to Steve McQueen’s examination of the themes regarding brother and sister in Shame.
Both films concentrate on how actions with maintaining a carefully constructed existence, via professionalism or sex addiction, can bring neglect to loved ones, even when the male leads of both films never portray the characters as villainous. Reynolds without doubt is selfish and at times ungrateful, but the film makes the viewer question whether its justifiable or not to his continued success as a dressmaker in high demand,with room for opinion on both sides.
Key to the film’s success also is the score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, his fourth consecutive feature with the director with its haunting piano music fitting in to the mood and being one of the strongest aspects of the film.
A likely piece of film history if Day-Lewis keeps his promise, Phantom Thread is not just a fitting way to end a remarkable career but another fine work from a director who might just have sealed his position as America’s best modern filmmaker.