Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a famed couture designer in post-war London. He is quite idiosyncratic, very particular. He has eyes for a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), whom he places in his house and sizes her up for a dress.
This scene, where Day-Lewis’ Woodcock measures Alma, is the beginning of an intensely fraught yet surprisingly understated romantic relationship. And it is a beautifully-constructed scene. It introduces us to the two characters—as well as a third, Lesley Manville’s Cyril—and how they view each other.
Woodcock begins by hanging colored cloth on Alma’s shoulders, picking out the perfect color for the dress. But he does it as if she were a wall ready to be painted. She is an object of beauty from which he can hang his masterpieces. For Alma, she is hesitantly in awe of Woodcock’s eye, but not as much as everyone else seems to be. She is far less hesitant to push back against him, to assert her individuality against his cold eye.
The scene is not indicative of a power struggle between the two about-to-be lovers. It is too innocuous for that. It is not a power struggle. No, a playful game for power.
This game continues for the next two hours. It is not always this playful—often, it is darkly comical in its strain and fragility. Woodcock is a domineering force with clear insecurities. Alma, conversely, often submits to this domineering force, but only when it suits her. As a means of setting roots from which her own concept of their relationship can grow.
The design of Alma’s character is as elegant and pointed as the design of the costumes in this film. Both are drawn with strong textures and punctuated by flourishing wrinkles. And she states the extent of her character’s solidarity and poise in ways better than this reviewer ever could: “No one can stand as long as I can.”
The progression of this character is the reason to watch the film, and Krieps’ performance is powerful. Day-Lewis may be the big name connected to this film, but Krieps—and Manville—upstage him at every turn, and that is not even a slight against Day-Lewis.
Paul Thomas Anderson has mastered his craft. When he wants to create a film that is so utterly sumptuous that you are as immersed in every sound and sight and taste as the characters are, he does it as easily as one would tie a shoe.
Anderson holds his own camera here, and he does this with an exacting precision. Even shots that at first appear askew resolve themselves in ways that are gorgeous. The shot structure and the lighting—the best lighting of 2017, dare I say—make for a composition that is undeniably gorgeous, cinematic, and transfixing.
One does not need to address the costume and production design in this film. They speak for themselves. And that score from Jonny Greenwood. Does it speak; volumes upon volumes of musical speech.
Phantom Thread’s greatest weakness may be its greatest influence. The film is Hitchcockian all the way down to the staircase. It is deep shades of Rebecca, only with a better protagonist. While not shabby shoes to fill, lumping this film in with the films of Hitchcock feels limiting. Noticing similarities takes one out of the sensory experience that Anderson has created. While Anderson may not be to blame for this, some of the nods do seem intentional.
The film may also be a tad long in the tooth, but this review is starting to do the same. So let’s wrap this up.
Phantom Thread is a film that executes on every cylinder. From the acting, to the direction, to the camera work, to the costumes, to the sets, to the sound design, to the music, the film is first-rate.
Phantom Thread: A-