Phantom Thread, 2017.
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Camilla Rutherford, and Brian Gleeson.
Set in 1950’s London, Reynolds Woodcock is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.
Phantom Thread has me torn. On the one hand, it is a beautiful piece of cinema that contains a fitting final performance for perhaps the greatest actor of a generation. Yet on the other hand, it’s is a meandering 130 minutes whose high points don’t seem to resonate the way they should.
The core of Phantom Thread’s story revolves around Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) a renowned dressmaker who holds his craft above all else in the world, and Alma (Vicky Krieps) a young woman who falls in love with Reynolds, and whose goal is to make Reynolds reciprocate that love. The two are played masterfully by both actors, who embody their subtle characters fully, so that each and every word, action, and expression hold real meaning. Their interactions feel undeniably true to life, and their developments are entirely believable.
If I had to describe Reynolds’ character, I would, strangely enough, describe him as the only sober man at a rowdy party. His movements are calculated and precise, while those around him act in a far more carefree manner. Like the sober man, he finds their antics irritating, and feels isolated from the undulating crowd. And the only way he can release himself from his loneliness is to drink the poison for himself.
The world of Phantom Thread is so elegant and graceful that it takes only the staccato attack of a piano to throw a scene into perceived chaos, and for the dynamic of any moment to change in an instant, with only the slightest of stimulus. Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s style parallels this feeling perfectly. His constant use of graciously swooping shots and never quite still close ups give the film an airy feeling, as if the camera were a ghost, gliding through the character’s lives, merely watching.
And herein lies Phantom Thread’s problem: it feels like a film that is so eager to maintain its grace and subtlety that it becomes afraid to ever really break anything. This is not to deny my earlier comment that the tone of the film changes often, and in very clever, understated ways. More it is to say that the film never feels as if it is willing to put itself in danger – to truly destroy the beauty of the world it created in case it could never rebuild it from the ashes. The result of this is a film that, while never boring, fails to ever truly excite, terrify, or even seriously move the audience.
Perhaps this lack of serous emotional engagement points to a flaw in my own perception of the film. While watching, I was constantly hit by the feeling that I was in a film discussion group or an acting class, smiling at the intricacy of the shots, the music, and the acting and thinking “how clever”, without ever really feeling what Anderson wanted me to feel. Take that as you will.
Phantom Thread is certainly a work of art, and an excellent one at that. It isn’t, however, stellar entertainment. But that’s okay; it wasn’t made to be. Nevertheless, after seeing the fire and fury that a Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis collaboration can bring (I’m looking at you, There Will Be Blood) Phantom Thread feels tame. Day-Lewis’ final performance is a fitting one, and it is among his best, but I could hardly describe it as him going out with a bang. Fortunately, it’s certainly not a whimper either.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★
James Turner is a writer and musician based in Sheffield. You can follow him on Twitter @JTAuthor