Review: Phantom Thread

Megan Harding 8 February 2018

The last film Daniel Day-Lewis shot with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson – 2007’s There Will Be Blood – was a fascinating dive into the mind of oil baron and cinematic bastard Daniel Plainview. It was epic and massive and ambitious, and it delivered on all its promise, showing a Day-Lewis and Anderson at the height of their creative powers. This new film, Phantom Thread, possibly Day-Lewis’ last, is much more intimate than There Will Be Blood, playfully juggling the perspectives of its three major characters – the brilliant but juvenile Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), his stark, witty sister Cyril (Leslie Manville), and the graceful, genuine outsider Alma (Vicky Krieps) – much more than was done in Day-Lewis’ and Anderson’s previous Plainview-centric collaboration. Full of delicious scenery and intense, desolate longing, Phantom Thread gives and gives and gives, coming together effortlessly.

The film centres around the relationship between the bachelor-dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock and his new muse Alma, a strong-willed waitress ‘from the country.’ The House of Woodcock is a strictly regimented machine of socialite, ‘anti-chic’ dressmaking, haunted by the ghost of a deceased, almost Oedipal mother and administered by Reynold’s sister Cyril – a difficult place to be in for a woman like Alma, be it not for her ingenuity in keeping Reynolds under her peculiar spell. Featuring some thematic overlap with Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Phantom Thread unfolds like the pages of a great novel, blooming with crisp colours and rich dialogue. It’s a gothic romance which manages to be both nostalgic and contemporary, meticulously crafted and challenging. 

What is really impressive about Phantom Thread is how masterfully composed it is. The sets and the costumes and the performances all have the same lavishness as the intimate candlelit scenes of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. It’s difficult to try to review a film like this because there’s not really anything wrong with it. The only thing that might offset your enjoyment of Phantom Thread is your own particular taste, a recurring non-issue in all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. He is such a smart filmmaker that each and every one of his films embodies all that they are supposed to embody – there’s very little that feels misplaced or ill-conceived. Inherent Vice, his last film, is about as exact a Thomas Pynchon adaptation as anyone could make, which is the film’s greatest asset as well as it’s greatest flaw, deliberately designed to be convoluted and maximalistic. While Phantom Thread is not nearly as inaccessible as that film, it is still a challenging film whose storytelling harks back more to the films of Powell and Pressburger than it does to those of Spielberg, and if anything is going to turn viewers away, it is that. 

For those who appreciate gothic character dramas though, there is a huge amount to admire. Every single aspect of Phantom Thread has a purpose, a reason to be there. Character interactions are riveting because Anderson’s writing has such a great grasp of the conflicts that can arise by simply placing two or more characters together, with their little eccentricities and insecurities; he showed that with 2012’s The Master, and he redisplays that here, creating gripping, hilarious scenes full of tension and depth. Conflicts play out not over battlefields but over breakfast tables, festooned with pots of tea, racks of toast, mushrooms and jam. No strawberry jam, though, and no ‘squishy things’, for Reynolds Woodcock detests such things, and Reynolds Woodcock is a very particular man. These little particularities make the dinner scenes of the film some of the most compelling of the year.

Now it’s time to gush about the score, so get ready. Jonny Greenwood composed the score for Anderson’s last three films – There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice – he does again here, and it’s the best score of the year. It’s as lush as Mark Bridges’ extravagant costumes and while remaining just as sad and erratic as his work on There Will Be Blood, full of pain and abject loneliness, with a looping piano theme that builds throughout. 

If anything, Phantom Thread demonstrates what can happen when highly creative people come together with the best intentions to make something great. I hasten to use the word ‘auteur’ when talking about Paul Thomas Anderson, not because he isn’t, but because his films benefit most from pitch-perfect working relationships. In what may be his final film role, Daniel Day-Lewis gives up part of the screen for Vicky Krieps and Leslie Manville, and it works immensely, producing not a swan-song, nor an ego-project, but a great film. All I want is to see it again and to let its absorbing atmosphere wash over me once more.