Phantom Thread (2017)

  • Time: 130 min
  • Genre: Crime | Drama | Romance
  • Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps


Set in the glamour of 1950’s post-war London, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) are at the center of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutants and dames with the distinct style of The House of Woodcock. Women come and go through Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young, strong-willed woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes a fixture in his life as his muse and lover. Once controlled and planned, he finds his carefully tailored life disrupted by love.


  • The title points three ways.
    (i) To the brilliant, eccentric dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, the phantom thread alludes to the little secrets he hides inside his creations: his mother’s portrait under the canvas of his jacket, little messages, a talisman like the “never cursed” he plants in the Belgium princess’s wedding gown. These are ghostly presences.
    (ii) More broadly, it suggests the magic of his craft, his famous “touch” that pulls the superior materials together into an even more brilliant whole. It’s the genius he brings to the “trade” his mother taught him, the genius that makes him the dominant figure in 1950s London fashion (before the working class eruption of the Beatles, Carnaby Street, etc.).
    (iii) Then there’s the love story — the core of this lush drama. This phantom thread is the mysterious element that draws together the handsome rich designer and the awkward country inn waitress. Trying to define this explains the opening (and returned to) scene of Alma being interviewed by a reporter about their relationship.
    In fact, the reporter is an intriguing ambiguity. Why is he interviewing her? Is he a fashion feature writer or a crime reporter” Is he sniffing out a new style trend or a mushroom snuff? Either explanation, i.e., either thread, is a phantom we need not pursue.
    Suffice it that the film chronicles a fascinating, unusual and therefore probably quite representative anatomy of a love affair.
    It’s especially quirky in its general exclusion of sex. It avoids the obvious. Woodcock (the name admits a retreat from fleshy sex stuff) has a ravenous appetite — but it’s exclusively for food, as his breakfasts demonstrate. Alma’s first note to him addresses “the hungry boy,” an affectionate reduction.
    Alma’s initial appeal is to his designer aesthetic: he likes a model with no breasts and a bit of a belly. But when she moves in he gives her a separate room, next to his but not with him.
    For he also has a ravenous hunger for complete control over his life. He doesn’t want his work or meals or emotional balance ever disturbed. Hence he’s a confirmed bachelor, though he explains that as his attempt to avoid the inevitable deceits of marriage.
    Alma loses him when — against his sister Cyril’s strong advice — she springs a surprise romantic dinner on him. Woodcock can’t abide surprises. Oddly, he handles having a sister named Cyril! But this is a story of irregular sexuality.
    Alma’s entrance ends his apparent career of serial mistresses, with whom he is early infatuated before he finds them irritating enough to let Cyril get rid of them. Alma brings new life: “Who is this lovely creature making the house smell so nice?”
    Their romance traces the shift of power from the totally self-absorbed man to the plain woman who struggles to sustain her own identity. He doesn’t respect her taste, personality, her desires, preferring to treat her as if she were just another material from which he fashions his work. The model is a tool of the dress. If anything, he cedes her less respect than he does his antique lace.
    “Alma” of course means “soul.” Paradoxically, the woman who brings soul and warmth to the cold Woodcock can only do it by shattering his independence — here, through poisoned mushrooms. She makes him physically sick to heal him emotionally.
    The dressmaker becomes human, properly appreciative of his woman, only after she forces him into some dependence upon her. Then her tending him supplants his earlier exclusive commitment to his dead mother: “It’s comforting to think the dead are watching over the living. I don’t find that spooky at all.” In his delirium her entrance drives out his vision of his dead mother.
    The first poisoning has him fall and ruin the wedding gown he’s finishing. But his seamstress crew solves the problem without him. Here he achieves an identity and success outside his work. He marries Alma. So much for his “I’m a confirmed bachelor. Incurable.” Alma cures him of isolated bachelorhood as well as the poisoning. One poison drives out the other.
    But he lapses from their healthy independence, prompting him to want Cyril to despatch her as well. When Alma’s second dose confirms their union, she tells him what she is doing:
    “I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open with only me to help. And then I want you strong again. You’re not going to die. You might wish you’re going to die, but you’re not going to. You need to settle down a little.”
    Even without knowing what she has done to him, he accepts it: “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick.” In context, that’s as romantic as the opening sonnet of Romeo and Juliet. As Alma tells Dr. Hardy, “Reynolds has made my dreams come true. And I had given him what he desires most in return…. Every piece of me.”
    The park idyll, with Woodcock and Alma playful of a workday afternoon, sister Cyril happily tending the infant in its carriage, may give the film a conventional happy ending. Love conquers all, etc. Or it may be just another projection of Alma’s fantasy. Which it is may depend on what that journalist is writing.

  • (RATING: ☆☆½ out of 5 stars)

    GRADE: C


    IN BRIEF: A well-crafted but pretentiously boring movie that is dressed to the nines, but barely rates a five.

    SYNOPSIS: A portrait of a suffering artist, set in the 50’s world of high fashion.

    RUNNING TIME: 2 hrs., 10 mins.

    JIM’S REVIEW: Reynolds Woodcock (a great screen name) is an elitist snob with little tolerance for others and more interest in himself. He is consumed with his art and his social skills are lost on anyone who enters his world, except maybe his only living relative, his sister, Cyril. He is a genius when it comes to fashion and a fool when it comes to love. He clings to a sense of order in his life and longs for a reasonable amount of decorum in his everyday existence. But all that will change when he meets and woos Alma, a common girl with an uncommon figure and profile who will become his muse. He is, of course, the talented Daniel Day-Lewis, in his final film role. And while it is not the greatest exit in his illustrious career, it is still a compelling portrait of an artist. Sadly, Mr. Day-Lewis’ last film vehicle, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, ultimately disappoints.

    The talented Mr. Anderson serves as director / screenwriter and this is not his best effort, given the contrary praised lavished on this artistic dud by many critics. Yet Phantom Thread has a wonderful visual and epic sweep. It cannot be denied that this movie is one of the most elegantly mounted films of the year. Mark Tildesley’s production design is stunning, with wonderful sets and backdrops, lavish period costumes by Mark Bridges evoke the era very effectively, and Mr. Anderson’s camerawork (yes, he also did the lush cinematography) is fluid and helps to peek interest with his lovely composition and lighting, plus a captivating atonal music score by Jonny Greenwood seamlessly mixes jazz renditions of popular songs and classical elements. Still, with all that care and craftsmanship of these fine artisans, the film rarely has any emotional connection. It is a joyless character study that just doesn’t go anywhere. The fault is primarily an unfocused script by the director that lacks clarity and purpose.

    Without divulging any plot spoilers, one can simply say that the film takes an interesting enough premise, an intricate character study of a man possessed, and makes a long story longer. The film doesn’t tie up its loose strands of plot very well, but to its credit, it doesn’t follow a predictable story either. Sometimes a strange Hitchcockian love story, sometimes a psychological thriller (without the thrills), it is a hybrid of sorts that can’t decide its own direction.

    The screenplay establishes supposedly complicated characters that are given nothing to do other than pout or look intense, act gravely, wear lovely outfits, and talk in stilted phrases with many pauses that accentuates the gravitas of their splintered relationships. The film holds your interest with its overall look, even as it starts to unravel in its complicated narrative structure and odd character twists and sadistic turns that all lead to an illogical ending. (Can submitting to death really evoke true love? Let’s get real!)

    Acting-wise, for this film to work, the three main characters must establish conflict and heighten the drama. There lies another problem. Mr. Day-Lewis adds layers to this nebulous character and watching him suffer and fuss is always an enjoyable exercise in moviegoing, one that will be missed. The most compelling role, however, is not the foppishly handsome and fastidious Mr. Woodcock, but his cold and straight-laced sister and business partner, Cyril, played to the hilt by Leslie Manville. One wishes she was given more screen time. It is the third character, that of Alma, which is miscast. Vickie Krieps plays this part and is being outacted by the pros around her. She brings forth little charm or the ability to make an impression that commands any attention. One fails to believe her allure with her bland interpretation of this crucial character. Ms. Krieps never successfully shows the cunning manipulations of her wayward character. It is this imbalance that seriously undercuts the film’s potential.  All in all, the actress is not the ideal Phantom’s menace. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun.)

    As a director, Mr. Anderson also lets scenes go on far too long which drags down the film and flatlines his film to a sluggish pace. His plot becomes a rather predictable and pretentious mystery that builds little tension or suspense. Except for a well-written office scene between brother and sister, dialog has an improvisational aura that lacks eloquence, seems contrived, and is just plain boring.

    All the fancy trimmings cannot hide the fact that Phantom Thread is one of the most well-made films of the year, but it is also one of the most overrated as well. Critics have adored this film and heaped accolades on this pretentious movie. But truth be known, the Emperor is wearing no clothes.

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  • By parts beguiling, quietly devastating, and surgically cruel, Phantom Thread, the latest from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, is also, quite significantly, the purported swan song of Daniel Day-Lewis.

    What can one say about the actor, named by Time magazine as the “World’s Greatest Actor” in 2012, that hasn’t already been said by critics, audiences and the three Best Actor Oscars he has received for a trio of vastly different portrayals: as a man stricken with cerebral palsy in My Left Foot, a ruthless and domineering oilman in There Will Be Blood, and the stately 16th President of the United States in Lincoln. That a sense of melancholy flickers now and again whilst viewing Phantom Thread is inevitable – one feels both a swell of gratitude to have been gifted with 21 films over his 46-year-long career, but also more than a tinge of regret that there won’t be more opportunities to observe the actor’s gift of marrying faultless technicality with endless reserves of emotional depth.

    In the Fifties-set Phantom Thread, Day-Lewis embodies one Reynolds Woodcock, a master dressmaker living and working in London. A confirmed bachelor, he’s surrounded by women – whether it be his high society customers, his cadre of seamstresses, his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who manages the day-to-day operations of his atelier, or the parade of romantic partners who are as wholly embraced as they are discarded. If he’s lost his appetite for his latest paramour Johanna (Camilla Rutherford) in the film’s opening moments, it’s soon regained upon meeting Alma (Vicky Krieps), the waitress who takes his order at a countryside restaurant.

    And what an order: “Welsh rabbit. With a poached egg on top, please. Not too runny. And bacon. Scones. Butter. Cream. Jam. Not strawberry. And some sausages.” Never has a listing been so riveting and psychologically revealing, but that’s the power of Daniel Day-Lewis for you. This scene reinforces Reynolds’ inherent fastidiousness, specific particularities, obsessive-compulsive nature, and godlike tendencies. “I could give you breasts…if I wanted to,” he remarks as he pins and tucks a muslin on her. Yet he’s dashing and irresistibly charming, so it’s perfectly understanding why Alma would be swept into his orbit even if she has to contend with the quietly fearsome Cyril, who literally sniffs her out at their first meeting and, after Reynolds takes her measurements, assesses, “You have the ideal shape. He likes a little belly.”

    If Cyril hasn’t already recalled Judith Anderson’s menacing Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca by this point, then you need to brush up on your gothic-tinged romances and your Alfred Hitchcock for Phantom Thread especially abounds with references to the latter, who remains the undisputed maestro at painting portraits of toxic masculinity. Nods to Rebecca, Notorious, and Vertigo are very much woven into Phantom Thread’s fabric, not only thematically but biologically as well. This is a film that in structure, texture, and execution feels like it was made in the Fifties – its pacing, its beats, the way it transitions from scene to scene are very much of the time. It’s an approach that may not appeal to more modern senses for it’s not necessarily the same type of formal exercise in recreating a particular film’s or filmmaker’s style as Far From Heaven and Carol were for Todd Haynes or Psycho was for Gus Van Sant. Yet at no point does this tactic feel fusty or mere simulation. The film is both of its time and out of it, resulting in a certain otherworldliness that undergirds the air of “quiet death” that permeates the film.

    Though Alma is the designated innocent in the tradition of Rebecca’s second Mrs. de Winter and Vertigo’s Madeleine/Judy and allows herself to be moulded to his desires, she is not as pliable as she appears. The magnificent Krieps bears a passing resemblance to Ingrid Bergman, she of Hitchcock’s Notorious, Spellbound, and Under Capricorn, not only facially but in her deceptively fragile resilience and rooted earthiness. “I can stand endlessly. No one can stand for as long as I can,” she remarks of her position as Reynolds’ latest muse, but she is no mere mannequin. Indeed, she may be one to bend but at no point does she ever break, unafraid of disagreeing with either Cyril or Reynolds and even, slowly but surely, imposing her own will over Reynolds.

    “My name is Alma, and I live here,” she asserts at one point and her determination to maintain her identity in the face of his infantile tyranny provides much of the film’s suspenseful momentum. Their clashes are a marvel to witness – their voices never raised, the words superficially innocuous but viciously cutting. “Maybe you have no taste”, “Maybe I like my own taste” goes one exchange. “It’s too much movement,” he complains of the way she eats her breakfast. During another food-related incident, Reynolds self-congratulates, “I’m admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you’ve prepared it.”

    As lush and romantic as it is surreal and perverse, Phantom Thread is an exquisite and insinuating masterwork, threading itself in one’s marrow and embedding itself in the memory. It strengthens Manville’s standing as one of the more underrated actresses of her time, introduces Krieps as an immense talent to watch, and gifts audiences with one (hopefully not) final superb showing from Day-Lewis who shall be most sorely missed.

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  • “There’s an air of quiet death in this house”.
    Rating: 8/10.

    The alleged acting swan-song of Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln”) sees him deliver a brilliantly intense portrayal of a maestro in his craft with all the quirks and egotistical faults that come with that position. 

    Reynolds Woodcock is the craftsman behind a world-renowned 1950’s fashion house, in demand from the elite classes and even royalty. He has a magnetic personality, is overtly self-confident, obsessive, a cruel bully and treats his girlfriends as chattels that he can tire of and dismiss from his life without a backward glance. Trying to keep the business and Reynolds on track, with ruthless efficiency, is his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville, “Maleficent”).

    Looking for his next conquest during a trip to his seaside residence, he reels in blushing young waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps, “The Colony”). But he gets more than he bargains for. 

    This is a really exquisite and gentle film. Aside from some dubious fungi-related practices, there is no violence, no sex and – aside from about half a dozen well-chosen F-words – limited swearing (of which more below). This is a study of the developing relationship between the two protagonists, with little in the way of plot. Sounds dull?  Far from it. This is two hours that flew by.

    What it also features is (yet) another example of extremely strong women asserting their power. A scene (well trailed in Manville’s award snippets) where Cyril firmly puts Reynolds back in his box is brilliant: a real turning of tables with Woodcock meekly falling into line. And Alma makes for an incredibly rich and complicated character, one of the most interesting female roles I’ve seen this year so far.

    It’s a stellar acting performance from Day-Lewis, and while Oldman fully deserves all of his award kudos for “Darkest Hour”, Day-Lewis delivers the goods without any of the make-up. It feels like Day-Lewis is a long way down the betting odds this year because “he always gets one”. He certainly gets my vote ahead of all of the other three nominees. 

    Kreips – not an actress I know – also brilliantly holds her own, and if it wasn’t such a strong female field this year she could well have been nominated.

    Also worthy of note is the pervasive piano score by (suprisingly) Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. It’s really lovely and counterpoints the rest of the classical score nicely. Its BAFTA and Oscar nominations are both well deserved (though I would expect the Oscar to follow the BAFTA steer with “The Shape of Water”). 

    All in all, this is a real tour de force by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (“Inherent Vice”, “There Will Be Blood”).  How much I enjoyed this film was a surprise to me, since I have no interest in the “fashion industry” (as my family will no doubt be quick to point out!) and I went to see this more out of ‘duty’ based on its Oscar buzz than because I really wanted to see it.

    The big curiosity is why exactly the BBFC decided that this film was worthy of a 15 certificate rather than a 12A.  Their comments on the film say “There is strong language (‘f**k’), as well as milder terms including ‘bloody’ and ‘hell’. Other issues include mild sex references and scenes of emotional upset. In one scene, a woman’s nipples are visible through her slip while she is measured for a dress.”  For a 12A, the board say “The use of strong language (for example, ‘f***’) must be infrequent”. I didn’t count the f-words… but as I said I don’t think it amounts to more than a half-dozen. Is that “frequent”?  And – SHOCK, HORROR… visible covered nipples you say?!   Lock up your teenagers!  When you look at the gentleness of this film versus the violence within “Black Panther”, you have to question this disparity.

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