Any new Paul Thomas Anderson film is an exciting event. There is something masterful and magical about the way he crafts his films. Re-teaming with his There Will Be Blood star, Daniel Day-Lewis and regular composer, Jonny Greenwood, Phantom Thread is set in a fashion house, the House of Woodcock, in 1950’s London. It is nothing less than astonishing.
Reynolds Woodcock dresses the finest women in proper society. He can see their form and wrap them in exquisite creations that elevate even the plainest of women. And women for Reynolds are nothing more than the filling of his creations. When one takes his eye, he uses that muse to further his creative talents, before discarding them, with the help of his beloved sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). They do get to leave with a dress, of course. Following the departure of the latest former muse, Reynolds decamps to the country and meets a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), whom he sets his eyes upon. Alma is taken by the reedy voiced man and they start a dance that is the heart of the film. Alma is his perfect shape, according to Cyril, Reynolds likes “a little belly”. Returning to London, Alma becomes, muse, model and lover. Yet, there is more. Alma has a will to match Reynold’s and as they face deepening feelings, they spar to gain the upper hand in each other affections.
Reading that summary back, it doesn’t seem much of a plot. But the performances from Day-Lewis and Krieps are beyond anything I can sum up. The way they spar with and dance around each other's emotions, with dresses and princesses getting in the way, is incredibly subtle, deceptive and utterly alluring. It is this battle at the heart of the film for the hearts of each other that drives everything forward. The cold perfection, the safe routine, that the House of Woodcock stands for bleeds into everything and epitomises the need and loneliness of Reynolds, Alma and Cyril. Manville’s character seems to live vicariously through Reynolds, she ensures that he is able to maintain the output that the House needs and is content when Reynolds is. It is an odd relationship that on paper seems underwritten, but Anderson’s camera and Manville’s performance gives a simmering intensity to Cyril thats makes the role. And yet, as relationships go, Reynolds and Alma’s is odd, strained and the heart of the film.
I was left wondering if there relationship is abusive or if it has the force of will of both sides that they is required vault the walls that Reynolds and Alma have built around themselves. The actions of both are harsh but yet exactly what each other need. The sparing and the barbs and the mushrooms reinvigorate their love and ensures their focus always returns to each other. It shouldn’t work, but it does and we are left with an astonishing beauty with a true heart.
Phantom Thread could have been cold, clinical and all surface, like one of Reynold’s dresses. But Anderson’s skill is in giving every shot depth, his actors the room to breathe life into their characters and that subtlety results in the film having soul. That, at first glace, everything seems so simply done on screen is testament to a genius working at full tilt. The long lingering takes lets you in beyond the words we are hearing and Greenwood’s incredible soft, rousing score brings life to lust boiling under the layers of manners and satin.
I watched Phantom Thread in state of joy, with a smile on my face and wonder in my heart. It is the power of cinema harnessed by people with love of the craft an commitment to every moment they capture on film. I adored it.
Phantom Thread is out now in the UK, rated 15.