Is there a more original director working in Hollywood today than Paul Thomas Anderson? From Scorsese-esque drama through romantic comedy, to a great American epic and a drug-fuelled mystery adapted from Thomas Pynchon, he always seem to go where we least expect. Phantom Thread is unlike anything he has ever made. He is a surprisingly rare example of an artist constantly developing himself.
Daniel Day-Lewis – reuniting with Anderson following 2007’s There Will Be Blood – plays Reynolds Woodcock, a dressmaker for British high society in postwar London. His bachelor’s lifestyle is turned upside down after a chance encounter in a seaside village with a young waitress called Alma (Vicky Krieps). She reignites a spark within him and becomes a muse. But their relationship proves more complicated than Alma first anticipated, not least due to the omnipresence of Reynolds’ sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville).
Anderson’s work is notoriously tricky to fully grasp on an initial viewing – 2012’s The Master only became one of my all-time favourite films after three viewings – and Phantom Thread is no exception to this. The psychological power-plays are as intoxicating as they are complex. He makes the kind of films in which nothing much seems to happen and yet everything is happening beneath the surface.
He is also adept at coaxing extraordinary performances from his actors. This is a subtler Day-Lewis than we’re used to, who seems to show us more of himself than in his Oscar-winning turns as Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Plainview, for instance. Perhaps it’s because he uses his own accent, or because he isn’t disguised by facial hair or prosthetics. Either way, he’s effortless. Krieps matches him all the way with a fiercely nuanced performance; her soft features concealing a steely determination to get what she wants. Manville is perfectly icy as the Mrs Danvers-esque figure – Anderson was influenced by Golden Age Hollywood romances like Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) – and has many of the film’s best lines.
If I have a slight criticism of Anderson’s otherwise astonishing body of work, it’s that he has spent much of his career focusing on the male experience. While his female characters are always rich and layered – think Julianne Moore in Magnolia (1999) or Katherine Waterston in Inherent Vice (2014) – they are often supporting roles or part of an ensemble. Phantom Thread goes some way to redressing the balance – Alma is given much agency and is much more of a lead than, say, Emily Watson in Punch-Drunk Love (2002) – but after providing us with eight excellent studies of masculinity, Anderson would do well to focus on the other half of the world's population in more detail.
I wasn’t surprised to find myself with reservations of Phantom Thread. On repeat viewings, that may well change. Whether that deters some people is up to them. The often fraught relationship between Reynolds and Alma occasionally feels repetitive and the cinematography, given the lack of an official director of photography, isn’t quite as visually sumptuous as Anderson’s collaborations with Robert Elswit and Mihai Malaimare Jr.
But there is still plenty to admire, from the impeccable acting, to Anderson’s psychologically rich and surprisingly funny screenplay, to regular collaborator Jonny Greenwood’s mesmerising score, which could well earn the Radiohead guitarist a very long-overdue Oscar nomination. If this really is Daniel Day-Lewis’ swansong to acting, then it’s a hell of a film (and performance) to end with.
Words by Logan Jones @LoganOnFilm