Movie Review: Phantom Thread

A costume drama set in the 1950s fashion world may be Daniel Day-Lewis last role

Phantom Thread
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
With Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps, Richard Graham, Camilla Rutherford, Harriet Sansom Harris as Barbara Rose, Brian Gleeson, Julia Davis, Nicholas Mander

Daniel Day-Lewis announced his retirement from acting, and if so he has gone out with one of his best performances in Phantom Thread. The costume drama, quite literally, takes us to the London fashion world of the 1950s. The focus is not on glitz and glamour. The tale takes place very much behind the scenes in the life of a reclusive designer who heads a fashion house that makes one-of-a-kind dresses for the upper class and royalty.

Phantom Thread is a very quiet drama. Scenes that start with someone buttering toast too loudly risk turning into confrontations over too much noise at breakfast. One of the themes is that Reynolds Woodcock (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) is an obsessive-compulsive designer, which is why his dresses are so good. He slaves over every detail and even hides little messages in the linings that nobody will ever see.

This also makes him impossible to be around. One of the few people that can stand him and understand him is his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). She looks after the business side of the fashion house and is very protective of her brother.

The film is narrated, though, by Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who becomes Reynolds’ model and muse. The story is seen from her perspective, which might be a bit biased in how some events are depicted.

There have been other films set in the fashion world such as Prêt-à-Porter (Ready to Wear), The Devil Wears Prada and Zoolander. All of these took a somewhat tongue in cheek approach. Phantom Thread respects its material, passing up all opportunities for flippancy.

The lopsided young/old and poor/rich relationships are also ripe for melodrama, but again director Paul Thomas Anderson plays it as straight as a hem on one House of Woodcock’s gowns.

The multilayered story that unfolds — with the goings on with the fashion clientele, and the odd relationship that develops among Reynolds, Cyril and Alma — becomes riveting, partly due to its obstinate refusal to fit neatly into expectations.

There is little in the way of actual action. One of the most suspenseful scenes in the film has a group of seamstresses all working at a steady pace on the same piece of fabric to replicate a damaged dress before dawn.

But what makes Phantom Thread a must-see, even for people with zero interest in fashion, is the performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. He creates a man that simply lives for his dresses. When his clients are satisfied he shines. When he isn’t finding the inspiration he needs he becomes unbearable.

A few quiet moments chatting and laughing with a real princess over her wedding dress design makes the weeks of work it will take to make the dress all worth the effort.

Day-Lewis worked with the same director before on There Will Be Blood, a role set in the US oil fields that was almost the polar opposite of this more refined and gentle character.

The film has some quite unexpected plot developments, so it is not all just sewing, sketching, and complaining about food. Alma is telling the tale, and fashion is not her biggest interest. This also helps to push it out of the niche market of being just a “women’s film.” There is a universal appeal for anyone who likes fully developed characters and complex motivations.

There is a saying that an ill wind brings no one good fortune. Several stars and film producers got caught up in scandals this year. Some names that had been widely expected for Oscar nominations, in the end, did not get them as fallout from the scandals. That meant good luck for Phantom Thread, a solid but incredibly low key film that deserves praise but was at risk of being overlooked.

The film sneaked in at the very end of the award season eligibility window, and scored six Academy Award nominations, taking people by surprise. Day-Lewis, in particular, is being talked about for Best Actor. Best Costume Design is another strong possibility. Lesley Manville got a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and that field is quite diverse this year so anything can happen.

Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood was nominated for Best Score. It is low key and lacks the pizzazz of other nominees like Hans Zimmer’s memorable Dunkirk score or John William’s latest rousing Star Wars entry.

The other prizes such as Best Film or Best Director seem like more of a long shot, but it could wind up winning just because it is the least controversial choice this year.

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