Phantom Thread is the latest much-discussed and visually sumptuous epic from writer, director, co-producer and uncredited director of photography Paul Thomas Anderson, and his second collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis after There Will Be Blood.
Day-Lewis delivers an impressive performance as a hopeless egomaniac and control freak, but is somewhat upstaged by the unfamiliar and very striking Vicky Krieps. In a surprising bit of casting (Anderson could have chosen, say, Keira Knightley, and she would have been fine), the Luxembourg-born Krieps is terrific in this, one of her first films in English, and her unease with Day-Lewis (who reportedly unnerved her greatly at first) actually works in its favour, making her seem more real than a name star.
In Anderson’s first film shot outside the US (note that his last outing was the very American Inherent Vice), we meet improbably-named fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) somewhere in a gorgeous-looking 1950s London. Reynolds is a renowned, awfully talented figure but personally he’s a right pain as he obsesses over minute details, sticks to suffocatingly rigid routines and drama-queens over any perceived barrier to the proper expression of his gifts. There’s a heavy suggestion that this is all to do with his longtime grief over the death of his mother, but that doesn’t especially humanise him, and he remains frustrating and irksome.
After a stressful gig with a big client, where he’s again assisted by his long-suffering sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), Reynolds enjoys (if that’s quite the right word) time off in the countryside, and it’s here that he meets waitress Alma (Vicky), whom he flirts with (sort of) by ordering a huge breakfast. Any thoughts of a proper romance between the two, however, evaporate when he eventually whisks her back to one of his properties and, instead of leaping into bed with her, treats her like a clotheshorse and criticises her breasts. Krieps is excellent here, as she quietly registers desire, flattery, puzzlement, disappointment and understandable offence.
Alma becomes part of the household and while they’re close, and he sometimes waxes lyrical over her beauty, it’s unclear to her whether they’re a couple or she’s a member of the staff or both. Scenes where they clash are uncomfortably funny and a touch disturbing, whether she’s making too much noise buttering her toast or preparing asparagus incorrectly.
However, this infuriating on-off-on-off-on-off relationship takes a turn. Suddenly everything starts feeling more like director Anderson’s previous efforts and we’re well into a whole new psychological situation that’s at once unexpected, amusing, ridiculous and most fitting indeed.
Multi-tasker Anderson’s ruthlessly exacting handling of the material here (the finicky historical period, the gorgeous dresses, the lovingly semi-old-school camerawork) is rather mirrored in the anal-retentively precise way that Reynolds carries on. There is a starchy quality to the proceedings after a while, as we long for something to happen to distract us from our ‘hero’ and his poncy carry-on. Krieps certainly tries hard to give the drama some heart, but it’s not really enough, and ultimately this winds up stitching itself into a slightly pretentious corner.
Day-Lewis has also (once again) stated that this will be his last film, but that seems distinctly unlikely. The right script, the right director and 20 million more than his usual fee and he’ll be back, don’t worry.
Rated M. Phantom Thread is in cinemas now.