Phantom Thread | Paul Thomas Anderson | December 25th, 2017
I’ll be the first to say that high fashion isn’t exactly my area of expertise, which makes the captive successes of Phantom Thread all the more impressive. Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a well-respected auteur of couture fashion in 1950s London. Prior to its release, Mr. Day-Lewis announced that this would be his final acting role on film, after almost half a century. Despite that rather jarring news, Phantom Thread escapes any connotation and stands on its own merits as one of the best films of the year.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s last film, Inherent Vice, was a direct adaptation, and Phantom Thread was originally to be about real-life fashion icon Charles James. Somewhere down the line, this idea changed to a work of complete fiction — however, the look of authenticity stayed. Immediately upon entering the House of Woodcock, the building is filled with bustling life. Middle-aged English women file in early in the morning, donning matching white uniforms. The corridors and staircases of the London building sport beautiful molding, window treatments, and banisters. Sewing needles, fabric, and thread begin to come to life inside this well-maintained machine. It’s quickly apparent that the House runs so as Reynolds takes his breakfast and tea. I must stress how beautiful the sets in Phantom Thread are — from the London epicenter to the Woodcock vacation home in the English countryside. Part of this is due to England just being itself, but just like his other films, Paul Thomas Anderson has a particular eye for detail in creating a living, breathing world inside the box of the silver screen. Longtime collaborating cinematographer Robert Elswit was unavailable for this film, so Anderson took many of the duties upon himself, though he chose not to take a credit for it, citing it as a group effort. Phantom Thread was shot on traditional 35mm film, which in turn has been blown up to 70mm. This creates a unique look to the images, with the grain and slight analog inconsistencies complimenting the period and adding warmth to its world. While 16mm to 35mm has been recently done, 35mm to 70mm is basically unheard of today. To the audience, it’s probably an extremely small choice, but the keen eye will see it clearly pays off. The visual experience is only complimented by fellow collaborator and Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood’s piano-laden score, which is already nominated for a Golden Globe.
It’s the running theme of detail that counts when looking at Phantom Thread. Everyone knows that Daniel Day-Lewis is the definition of “method acting” by now, and he once again proves how well he can dissolve into a character. As we watch Reynolds Woodcock execute his craft on screen, we can see Daniel’s fingers are truly calloused and scabbed from working with the needle and thread. However, the best aspects of the movie come from Anderson’s script, not just limited to Daniel’s talent. Lesley Manville plays Cyril, Reynolds’ beloved sister and arm of the fashion House. Despite being very short, her ability to match her brother’s wit is integral to the story. However, the true standout is Luxembourgish actress Vicky Krieps, who plays Alma. Reynolds, taking a break from the bustle of London, meets Alma in a seaside restaurant in the small village near his country home. The relationship between Reynolds and Alma is what drives Phantom Thread, and many of their scenes are quite intimately written. Alma is whisked away into a life of higher status, and Reynolds, a serial bachelor, has his carefully cultured life shaken by a woman who can both fit in and change his routine. The on-screen chemistry between them is daringly palpable, and it underscores the main theme of the film — that interpersonal relationships are steeped in secrets. Near the end of the film, the pacing kind of jarred me a little. I wouldn’t quite say there’s a twist, but the direction the plot takes is a bit of a turn that the audience is just assumed to accept. Sort of an “Oh … okay” moment. But overall, the on-screen relationship is a necessary one and not something we’ve seen before.
Phantom Thread is truly a celebration of craft. Craft in dressmaking, craft in filmmaking, craft in acting … and not too many films can so aptly combine all of those things into an experience that is enjoyable. Whether you appreciate authentic filmmaking in a sea of commercial franchising or are just looking for a unique movie to take your date to, Phantom Thread lives up to the expected quality of its cast and crew.