Mark Reviews Movies

Phantom Thread


3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Brian Gleeson, Gina McKee, Harriet Sansom Harris, Julia Davis

MPAA Rating: R (for language)

Running Time: 2:10

Release Date: 12/25/17 (limited); 1/12/18 (wider); 1/19/18 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 11, 2018

It is, of course, impossible—perhaps, even reckless—to reduce a person to a single, definitive set of descriptors, but if we were to do such a thing in regards to the central characters of Phantom Thread, we might call them very particular and domineering. This is apparent for the man in the film's central relationship, a famed fashion designer in London named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). Our first impression of him comes as he prepares himself for the day ahead. He shaves, combs his hair, and puts on his clothes—a fine suit with a purplish bowtie and, naturally, matching socks.

At breakfast, he chides his eating companion, a lovely woman who clearly is at wits end with her partner, for presenting him with an assortment of croissants. The scolding is because he told her that he wanted no more sweet things at breakfast. She doesn't remember this particular conversation, and it's likely that it never happened—except maybe in his own head.

Reynolds is a man who seems to exist in his own head for the majority of any given day. While eating said breakfast, he sketches away in a notebook, coming up with designs for dresses that his staff of pattern makers and sewers will work on for however long it takes for his vision to be fulfilled. They arrive at the House of Woodcock, as his home and business—both in the same multi-story building—are called, in a single-line parade, making their way up the flights of stairs to the workshop. At least Reynolds knows their names, but that seems to be as far as he's willing to take his relationship with any of them.

When we first meet his eventual partner in writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's strangely romantic tale, we would never use the words "particular" or "domineering" to describe her. She's Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress at a restaurant in the country, where Reynolds has a second home—a tall manor surrounded by trees, where the attic is a dedicated workshop for his more personal designs.

Their first interaction goes as expected: He orders a substantial breakfast, and she writes down his order. There are two noteworthy details here, one that confirms Reynolds' manner and the other that offers the first hint that there's more to Alma than the front of a smiling, attractive, and attentive waitress. After confirming that his order is correct on Alma's notepad, he tears the page from it, testing her to remember his order.

The second detail comes after the order arrives—correctly, of course. He asks her to dinner. She accepts and pulls a note from her apron—a brief introduction to "the hungry boy" with her name on it. It's vital, because it suggests that she expected the offer to be made and that, if it wasn't made, she was prepared to take the first step to ensure that her expectation was met.

Anderson's screenplay is filled with these precise assertions of expectations and subtle diversions from them. It comes as little surprise, for instance, that Reynolds follows up dinner with a visit to his country manner. It's less of a surprise that he takes Alma up to his attic, and it is, perhaps, inevitable that he uses her as a model for a dress. The shock is when the two receive company: Reynolds' sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who oversees the business side of her brother's fashion house. At this point, Alma becomes nothing more than a breathing, frowning mannequin, as Reynolds gets to work with his measuring tape and Cyril jots down Alma's measurements.

We think we have the characters pegged at this point: Reynolds is the man he shows himself to be, and Alma is a scrappy admirer of the man, because of his reputation, his handsomeness, or some combination of the two. Anderson isn't content with this, and neither should he be. He has hinted at something more to Alma—something mildly aggressive beneath the coquettish way she presents herself to the world.

The story follows through as a psychological unraveling of these two characters, a battle of wits and a power struggle between two people who are more alike than they—and we—first expect, and, ultimately, a twisted romance that turns our first impression of these characters on its head. There's nothing false about the shifting dynamics of the relationship, because Anderson approaches the material with a forthrightness that Reynolds would admire and a level subversion that would make Alma smirk.

The relationship itself is unsteady. Over the course of it, one often will recall the ultimate fate of the woman who first appears at Reynold's dining table. He grew tired of her, and Cyril did the honors of removing the distraction from his life. This, it seems, is Alma's ultimate fate. She has other plans.

That's as far as any discussion of the plot should go. To summarize that side, we're constantly learning about these characters, repeatedly surprised by the depth with which Anderson imbues them, and, in the end, shocked at how dreadfully simple the resolution to this story is.

The rest of the film serves as a showcase for Anderson's control of tone, atmosphere, and design. The period is some time in the 1950s. The House of Woodcock is a minor marvel of minimalism, in that it exists as a white void, sparsely adorned and furnished with only the essentials. It's a place that the chief resident/proprietor can fill with his personality and decorate with the fashionable results of his work. Jonny Greenwood's lavish score alters between sweepingly romantic piano melodies and eerie strings, as Reynolds adores his two favorite things—himself and his dresses—and as Alma begins work to guarantee that her intentions with Reynolds come to fruition.

In the end, the entirety of the film is summed up with an exchange that's akin to the long-awaited, highly anticipated, and pretty hilarious punch line to a shaggy dog tale of a joke. That's not meant to disparage Phantom Thread in the slightest. The punch line is the only logical answer here, and as funny and cynical and dementedly sweet as that resolution may be, it is only those things because the buildup of these characters and this relationship has prepared us so well for it.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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