Going through the filmography of Paul Thomas Anderson reveals his two recurring passions when it comes to the stories he wants to tell. Going from his debut Hard Eight (a film that is criminally overshadowed by what was to come) through to the ensembles of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, to the thematic siblings of There Will be Blood and The Master (Inherent Vice is his only diversion) Anderson is obsessed with dysfunctional families with huge industries as their back drop. From gambling to pornography, television to oil, Paul Thomas Anderson shows us how industry can connect and destroy relationships, how greed and selfishness sour the cobbled together families of his work. Phantom Thread falls in line with these themes but adds a twist that is rare in Anderson’s work.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock who is at the height of his success in 1950s England. Unlike the boorish and violent Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood, Woodcock is a spoiled man-child who ably fits into the tortured genius category, and by that, I mean you wouldn’t want to get stuck in a lift with him. He is a fussy perfectionist with a soft speaking voice and a very patronising manner, with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) the only person who can keep him in check. That is until he meets his newest muse Alma, a waitress who becomes his partner in all things.
As it’s a film about fashion it’s surprising that Anderson quickly bypasses themes of female exploitation. It’s true that Reynolds sees dress-fillers when presented with actual women, but this cold objectification is merely a backdrop to a much more interesting love story between himself and Alma. It’s clear from the beginning that Alma won’t settle for being Reynolds’ muse of the month (he goes through a lot of them, who Cyril gets rid of when he’s bored) but would rather be the woman behind the man.
Again, Phantom Thread doesn’t go for the simple option. What could have been a fine romantic film is instead a remarkably layered film about obsession (another favourite theme) and the cycles of abuse that can be mistaken for love. Reynolds and Alma’s relationship is a tainted version of mother and son: Reynolds has a lock of his mother’s hair sewn into the suit he wears on his and Alma’s first date to nail that notion home. Cyril has been filling the role of both parents for her little brother for so long that it’s what defines her existence, and their father (and Anderson loves his bad fathers) is as important through his conspicuous absence.
While this is technically billed as Daniel Day-Lewis’ last role, and he is reliable brilliant, he is overshadowed by just about everything else. Both Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps act the veteran Oscar winner off the screen as the two living women who define Reynolds life. Johnny Greenwood’s hauntingly spare score creates a beautifully sinister atmosphere (though as a long-time Radiohead fan I might be biased), and Anderson himself is at the top of his game with a controlled performance behind the camera that informs his most gothic film to date.
Phantom Thread has absolutely no chance at the Oscars (except maybe for costume design) with no form at previous awards shows, but it is easily one of the best films of the year, on par with Anderson’s best work, and a fitting send off to Daniel Day-Lewis. Until Paul Thomas Anderson gives him another great role in about a decade and brings him back into the fold.
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By Kevin Boyle