PHANTOM THREAD, US, 2017. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicki Krieps, Lesley Manville, Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. 130 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language).
An ingenious and fascinating title.
This is an unexpected story from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. However, every film that Anderson makes is so different from the previous one that he is always unexpected. And this time this is a British story, filmed in England, with British characters and British tone. An American’s perspective on Britain in the post-war period, in the 1950s.
The threat of the title is rather literal. This is a film about fashion. It is a film about the fashion world in London in the 1950s, a focus on an individual dress designers and makers, Reynolds Woodcock, whose life and work is in vivid contrast to the lives and work of French costume years, Dior and Yves St Laurent. (There have been several documentaries and feature films on these two men which highlight the difference between their lives and careers and that of Reynolds Woodcock.)
Paul Thomas Anderson directed Daniel Day Lewis to an Oscar winning-performance in There Shall Be Blood (2007). Daniel Day Lewis is the only actor so far to have won the Oscar for Best Actor three times (My Left Foot and Lincoln). He is an actor who does not make films so frequently but has the capacity to go deeply into his character, to inhabit his character. It has been noted that he does not usually have his own British accent which he does here. His performance is very subtle, eliciting some puzzle from the audience about the intricacies of his character, his moods, his talent, his capacity for relationships – and not.
For the audience interested in fashion, there are many sequences of dressmaking, the wearing of the different creations, and a detailed fashion show.
Reynolds works with his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville, so often in Mike Leigh films, a strong and sometimes astringent presence), who looks after the business side of the House, also keeping an eye on her brother’s emotions and relationships.
The relationship in this part of Reynolds’ life is Alma, effectively played in a mixture of meekness, gentleness, determination and exercise of power, by Luxembourg actress Vicki Krieps. He is attracted to her when she is a waitress serving him breakfast, invites her to dinner, she returns to his house and becomes part of the household, her measurements taken in great detail, dresses designed for her, her wearing them, becoming a model, participating in the fashion show.
But, back to Reynolds. He becomes continually more complex, exceedingly demanding on Alma, fidgety and easily irritated by excessive noise, wanting to concentrate, sketch designs, and is rather absorbed in himself.
The plot becomes more complex as Alma realises her love for Reynolds (but not the co-dependency) which leads her to become more wilful than we thought her capable of – and more wilful than she might ever have dreamt about herself. She devises a way to subdue Reynolds, partly subjugate him, symbolised mushrooms and by her presence as a lavish party for New Year’s Eve and his desperate following her and trying to rescue her from the crowd.
Anderson has directed the film in a very measured way, not concerned about time or fast pace, allowing the camera to stay focused on the character’s face, or on a tense situation for far longer than the audience might be expecting. Anderson wants audiences to get to know his characters, try to empathise with them, try to understand them, to reflect on them. So, a reviewer’s warning, this is definitely not a film for the impatient.
An intriguing film that would probably well repay a second viewing.
Universal Released February 1st
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.