Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth film is a hypnotic examination of a man who is brilliant but also petty, petulant and stifling. The man in question is Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis), a master fashion designer and head of the ancestral House of Woodcock. Phantom Thread is set in a 1950’s London which bears none of the hallmarks of post-war depression – indeed, rationing must have been a thing of the past judging from the Woodcock household’s extravagant breakfasts. Reynolds runs the family tailoring business from the old family home, an operation which is obsessively managed in the house’s narrow, claustrophobic corridors by Reynolds and his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville).
This second collaboration between Anderson and Day Lewis is entirely different to There Will Be Blood (2007). Instead of Daniel Plainview, the monstrous and violent harbinger of capitalist greed, Day Lewis portrays a man for whom life has been easy and indulgent thanks to his delicate genius with a needle. The dresses made by Reynolds and his team of silent, matronly women have the power to captivate the wealthy duchesses and princesses for whom he designs. His creations are about the only spark of life and colour in the aggressively grand London town house in which they are made.
The only things subject to regular change amongst the austere décor are Reynolds’ female companions, whom he passionately loves, then tires of and eventually sends away with only a handmade House of Woodcock dress for comfort. After the latest blow of this kind is dealt on his behalf by Cyril, Reynolds retires to the country for some rest – only to meet Alma (Vicky Krieps) whom Reynolds brings back with him to London. She is in every sense a foreign entity, whose amused puzzlement at Reynolds’ diva-ish ways sets her on a collision course with him, Cyril and just about everyone. The film follows the tumultuous relationship between Alma and Reynolds, which swings violently between dependence and hostility, eventually finding an equilibrium in very unusual style.
Daniel Day Lewis is brilliant in (supposedly) his final role, expertly portraying a creative genius who is devoted to the memory of his mother, keeping a lock of her hair sewn into the lining of his jacket. Reynolds demands total control of his house and of Alma but clearly desires something much simpler and comfortable – to be mothered. Alma’s initial confusion at the House of Woodcock and anarchic streak is the film’s heart, with Vicky Krieps matching her legendary screen partner all the way – especially in a hilariously disastrous surprise-dinner scene. However, the best lines and biggest laughs are given to Cyril who keeps order in the house and attends to her brother’s every selfish insistence.
Phantom Thread is a beautifully constructed film which reminded me tonally of Carol (2015) but failed to illicit a similar emotional response in me. Although, as I have already said, it is a very different film to There Will Be Blood, I found myself longing for just a little of that film’s visceral impact. Paul Thomas Anderson has certainly crafted an arresting viewing experience, but I feel this is a film made to be admired rather than cherished.