When Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is released late this December, it most likely be received with the same kind of critical praise that has been shown to his many other films, from Boogie Nights back in 1997 to 2014’s Inherent Vice. The film will also mark Daniel Day-Lewis’ final film role. The guarded, renowned actor is retiring, ending a four-decade long film career having worked with directors as revered as Spielberg and Scorsese and having won three Best Actor Oscars – more than any male actor working in the industry, ever. Hopes are that Phantom Thread will pull the curtain on Day-Lewis’ career in the right way, with the same kind of filmic brilliance that has graced his other work, while also having the edge in itself to avoid being known as simply ‘the final film of Daniel Day-Lewis.’
Phantom Thread’s first trailer gives off the right vibes. Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, a celebrated but eccentric dressmaker who, along with his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville), runs the illustrious House of Woodcock for rich socialites in 50s post war London. After meeting a woman named Alma (Vicky Krieps) in a seaside tea-room, his life seems to become consumed by feelings of love, Alma becoming his lover and muse. The grand gestures and kind words are underpinned however by an overriding sadness and frustration. Reynolds’ sister Cyril speaks of him as though he is ‘cursed’ in love, unable to maintain the grand gestures and intense infatuation for very long. Reynolds Woodcock is a successful, charming man of middle age, so why isn’t he married? Phantom Thread looks to be the kind of character study Day-Lewis and director Paul Thomas Anderson both excel at, pulled off with the same intensity that marked their last collaboration together, 2007’s There Will Be Blood.
Looking back over Day-Lewis’ career is like looking at a medley of some of the most interesting acting of the last few decades. In terms of high-level acting, Day-Lewis is a trendsetter. In many ways a lot of what he did, say, 25 years ago, has since become almost cliché for actors looking to bag that first Oscar: in My Left Foot, Day-Lewis portrayed cerebral palsy-ridden artist Christy Brown, an Irishman who could only move his left foot; in The Last of the Mohicans, he played Hawkeye, learning to fight with tomahawks and a 12-pound flintlock, track animals, and build canoes. Seeing both today is like seeing the backstory for films like The Theory of Everything and The Revenant, both of which of course won Best Actor Oscars for respective stars Eddie Redmayne and Leonardo DiCaprio. Where most other actors would be accused of mining for ‘Oscar-bait’, Day-Lewis seems to have worked in an effort to push the profession forward. His unbridled commitment and short, sparse filmography reminds me of Stanley Kubrick. Where Kubrick insisted on shots and frames being perfect, compiling drawers full of notes for films he never made, Day-Lewis has insisted on embodying his roles to the point of nausea, on believing his own ventriloquism. Look at Lincoln or Gangs of New York and this is the impression you get, of the insane commitment and the meticulous obsessiveness Day-Lewis took towards creating memorable, well-rounded characters.
Day-Lewis certainly didn’t skimp out on his characteristic intensity when he stared in There Will Be Blood, and it doesn’t seem like he’s skimping out on it with Phantom Thread either. For my money, There Will Be Blood is by far the best film of his career – it’s a visceral, physical movie whose unsettling Jonny Greenwood score adds a little sinister punch to Day-Lewis’ raging performance as oil-prospector Daniel Plainview. Let’s hope that Phantom Thread lives up to not only Daniel Day-Lewis’ reputation as a renowned method-actor, but also the expectations we have as people who love film. More than anything, I want Phantom Thread to be more than just a great Daniel Day-Lewis film; I want it to be a great film on its own. That is the best possible send-off for an actor such as Daniel Day-Lewis.