Phantom Thread, the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson, is all that you want in a love story but nothing you’d expect. With every frame, this romantic drama charms, yet at its heart beats a tense battle for identity buoyed by a dark sense of humor. Being a film centered around a couture designer in mid-1950s London, it has to be beautiful to look at, and it has beauty to spare. The use of color and costuming, expertly designed by Anderson regular Mark Bridges and meticulously framed by Anderson, who goes uncredited as the film’s cinematographer, is wielded delicately yet with potency. The eye line is always grounded, yet light often glows around objects and through windows. The frequent use of closeups is less fetishistic than it is intimate. Throughout, Jonny Greenwood’s omnipresent and beguiling score wafts over the drama, melding with diegetic sound, including pieces of music placed in the world of the characters. It sounds overwhelming, but it’s all meticulously balanced. There’s an entrancing quality to the film’s pace, from music to editing. At the center of it all are three strong, willfully independent characters that embody the messy complexities of loving presented with a surprising amount of humor, affection and sympathy.
The film’s title refers to a unique bit of flair added by Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) to the dresses he designs: hidden, hand-stitched messages woven into the seams of his creations. The couturier is immensely successful, as he designs dresses for high society types and even royalty. Younger, less fortunate women can only dream to aspire to one day be buried in his creations, as two fans express as much, interrupting one of Woodcock’s outings for dinner. Sitting on either side of him are his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and his lover/muse/model Alma (Vicky Krieps).
Fittingly dressed in navy blue skirt suits as snug as her pulled back hair, Cyril is Reynolds’ grounding element. She helps run the business with a straightforward if sometimes severely serious composure. That sometimes calls for her pushing Reynolds to do things he may find uncomfortable, like attending a rather crass client’s wedding. Early in the film, we see Cyril also helps him break up with lovers. Manville plays her marvelously, projecting awareness through her gaze, all lips and eyelids, beyond her stiff posture.
Reynolds, on the other hand, is the artist. He’s a willowy thing, sensitive to any change in his routine. His art is his life, although the self-declared “confirmed bachelor” enjoys the company of a lady. He’s a man constantly in need of an ego boost between intense sessions of creation, yet he does not like to have his creative process disturbed. Day-Lewis uses a delicate voice that fits the exquisiteness of his character’s trade. He’s well spoken and prone to nostalgia for his and Cyril’s long-dead mother. Day-Lewis vacillates between this profound sensitivity and a determined concentration in his work that often informs outbursts of anger manifested in pointed words. Day-Lewis embodies the tightrope line his mood rests on with a flexibility that also reveals an interconnection between these two extremes.
When Alma enters the mix after the early dismissal of a lover who has cracked to the pressure of the company of Reynolds and Cyril, you wonder if Reynolds has found another ethereal plaything to amuse himself with while passing the time. But behind the blushing, clumsy exterior of this waitress he picks up during a trip to the family’s seaside home, lies a woman who values her own identity and the power in getting in the last word. Krieps plays her with a brilliant balance of hesitation and strength. She adjusts quickly to Reynolds’ direct expression of affection for her unique qualities. On their first date, he measures her for a dress. “You have no breasts,” he observes. She apologizes, annoyed, “I know. I’m sorry,” before he quickly offers an assurance with a content smile (not of himself but of her): “You’re perfect.”
Humor and charm are tightly bound in this budding romance. When it soon appears as if Alma will fall victim to Reynolds’ waning fancy, she challenges him. Whether it’s in the loud buttering of toast at breakfast that disturbs his concentration while sketches out designs or her desire to surprise him with a dinner alone at home, Alma exerts herself as who she is. However, this is not a woman who wants to play alpha nor supplicant. “I want to love him the way I want to,” she tells Cyril after the sister advises against a romantic scheme that might upset Reynolds’ routine.
The magic in this carefully constructed film is how strong all the characters seem without making any of them villains. There is much to love in Reynolds, in particular. He wears his emotions openly. His dress designs have an autobiographical element in the messages hidden in the fabrics. Early in their meeting, when he expresses an undying love for his departed mother, it touches Alma. Later, that same wistfulness affirms Cyril’s role as a surrogate. The man also falls into a routine funk after the completion of a creation, and both women are there to care for this vulnerable man. They offer a strength he sometimes doesn’t have. But it is Alma who offers an almost magical element to the mix that is both diabolical and endearing.
Phantom Thread is famously being touted as Day-Lewis’ final acting role. Less known is that he had a hand in co-writing the screenplay with Anderson and that he learned how to sew together dresses while Anderson worked on the script. The work even shows in the actor’s fingertips during the film’s many close-ups on the needles punching through fabric. It adds to the film’s rich detail that makes you think Reynolds was once a real person in the London couture scene, though he is a creation of fiction. Beautifully shot, incredibly acted, well written with amazing detail to the era and business of couture design, Phantom Thread celebrates falling in love while never diminishing the importance of the individual within the romance and wielding humor as a humbling device that never devolves into trifling farce. It’s a balance few such films can ever respectfully achieve and this group of filmmakers understands that it all lies in the details.
Phantom Thread runs 130 minutes and is rated R. It opens in our South Florida area on Friday, January 19, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, Cinépolis Coconut Grove, AMC Aventura 24, AMC Sunset Place 24, South Beach Regal 18 Miami Beach, Cinépolis Coconut Grove and the CMX Brickell City Centre. Further north, in Broward County, it opens at the Regal Oakwoood 18, Regal Sawgrass Sawgrass Stadium 23 & IMAX, Classic Gateway Theatre, Cinemark Paradise 24 in Davie. On the following Friday, Jan. 26, it opens at O Cinema Miami Beach. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Focus Features invited us to a preview screening last year for awards consideration.
On Monday, Jan. 29, the Coral Gables Art Cinema and Books & Books will host a discussion on film and fashion at Books & Books, located across the street from the theater, featuring Gables Art Cinema programming director Nat Chediak and Christian Garcia, “one of the world’s last – and one of the finest – bespoke tailors.” Details on this free event can be found here.
You can also read an interview I conducted with Phantom Thread‘s costume designer Mark Bridges in the Miami New Times by jumping through the headline below:
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