By Noah Gittell
If “Phantom Thread” is really the last film in the historic career of Daniel Day-Lewis, as he has promised, he has gone out with not a seismic bang but a delicate, aching whisper. Moving beyond the transformative tasks of playing an oil man and our nation’s sixteenth president in his last two films — “There Will Be Blood” and “Lincoln” — here Day-Lewis appears to be playing something like himself for the first time in a long time. It’s a revelation.
His Reynolds Woodcock, a celebrity dressmaker in 1950s London, is fastidious and brilliant, polite but distant. He suffers for his art, and if he makes others suffer along with him, it’s a small price to pay for his brilliance. In an early scene, he has breakfast with his latest muse-cum-girlfriend and his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville), and when the former complains about his lack of affection, he glares at her and has Cyril throw her out.
But soon he meets his next muse, and perhaps even his match, in Alma, a country waitress. Of the many subjects “Phantom Thread,” written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “The Master”), tackles — fashion, genius, marriage, and death — perhaps its most insightful comment is on the subject of breakfast. Reynolds and Alma meet over it. As his waitress, she impresses him with her ability to remember his larger order, and when he asks for her number, she gives it to him on the bill, on which she has written, “For the hungry boy.”
After he invites her into his home — and his bed — their budding romance shows signs of strain when she butters her toast and pours her tea too loudly. “If breakfast doesn’t go well,” his sister explains, “it’s very hard for him to recover.” Perhaps Anderson, a married father of four, sees breakfast as a battlefield. Lose the confrontation early on, and you’ve lost the whole day.
Alma, however, is not prepared to go down to defeat. At later breakfasts, and elsewhere, she resists Reynolds’ controlling nature, eventually devising a delicious plan to even the scales between them and find balance. In some ways, “Phantom Thread” seems perfectly timed to the #MeToo moment. Woodcock is emotionally abusive and refuses to see his female models as anything but a vessel for his brilliance. But “Phantom Thread” doesn’t want to see him ruined for this. It yearns for harmony, to see its male genius tamed but not redeemed by a strong woman.
In this context, Day-Lewis was wise to not transform himself too much. Woodcock looks and feels like the actor we have glimpsed in interviews and awards show speeches. He is charismatic but distant. He smiles nervously when caught in a vulnerable moment, and his detachment keeps him in control of every interaction. Anderson’s camera (the director is serving as his own director of photography for the first time in his career) often frames him in silhouette, etching his pointed face into white spaces behind him. He’s a statue waiting to be brought to life.
As the partner who seeks to both save and challenge Woodcock, Krieps is a revelation. Pink-faced and cherubic, we follow Woodcock’s example and see her at first as a shrinking violet (not coincidentally, the color he clothes her in), but Krieps and her character prove every bit as strong as her onscreen opponent. As Alma reclaims her power over Woodcock, Krieps, too, claims a place on cinema’s largest stage. She goes up against the greatest acting talent of our time and comes out ahead.
It’s another perverted tête-à-tête for Anderson, and his most accomplished film yet. A taut and insightful chamber piece, “Phantom Thread” keeps its three central characters mostly in one space, a sparse but gorgeous London townhouse. Anderson works within those natural confines, building a claustrophobic mood, keeping his actors close to the lens, and letting his marvelous actors find each other in the space. Meanwhile, the ethereal score by Johnny Greenwood lifts this story, forged in the dirt of humanity, to a higher plane.
With each disparate element working in concert, “Phantom Thread” is impossible to pin down. A meditation on marriage. A subversion of male genius. A relationship comedy. When a film clicks as well as this one, holding your attention from the first innocent moment to the last twisted one, it doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s just perfect.
My Rating: See it in the Theater