Our introduction to dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) world is a lyrical dance. Early in the morning women line up outside the front door of his London house to be let in by Reynold’s sister and business manager Cyril at precisely the right moment. They file up the stairs into his house in quiet order to his attic where dress forms sit unfinished from the night before. And without saying a word they pick up exactly where they left of. While this is going on Reynolds meticulously grooms himself, each act a deliberate step in preparing himself for the work of the day. His only interruption from his deliberate preparation is to dismiss the plaintive concerns of his presumed love interest and then, more privately, to instruct Cyril, the eager handler of most of his dirty work, to dismiss the love interest altogether. The success of his business and the flourishing of his artistic instincts require one thing: absolute control. And any hindrance to this control are threats to be dealt with.
On a sojourn away from his dressmaking he stumbles into an inn for breakfast where he is served by Alma (Vicky Krieps) and he is immediately smitten by her. And she, in her own way, is smitten by him. Yet three things become readily apparent as they go out for dinner together. The first is that Reynolds clearly intends to control Alma the same way that he controls the rest of his life, at one point wiping the lipstick of her lips unannounced. The second that it is not clear if Reynolds’ interest in her goes anything beyond the way her physical form inspires him artistically (Cyril quips bluntly at one point, “You have the ideal shape – he likes a little belly”), with this date ending with the two of them in his fitting room as he invasively stares at her and measures . But finally, it is clear from the offset that Alma intends to be no mere conduit for his inspiration either and is willing to bite back.
And with that begins Paul Thomas Anderson’s strange and wondrous eighth feature. The American master ventures into new territory with Phantom Thread and not just in the superficial sense that this is his first movie set outside of California. But Anderson attempts a much more intimate romantic drama here with a touch of dark humour lurking beneath, making it much more reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rebecca than anything in Anderson’s previous oeuvre. And like Aronofsky’s Mother, Anderson is concerned with the relationship between artist and muse and the dark places that relationship. Of course Anderson handles the subject more elegantly than Aronofsky does mostly because Anderson rightly couches whatever thoughts he might have on the subject in a fascinating tale between the three individuals and surrounds this tale with exceptional craft from beginning to end.
Acting as his own uncredited cinematographer Anderson bathes the entire film in a warm and faded light so that even the smallest confines of his apartment doesn’t seem claustrophobic while even the brightest scenes are touched with a hint of melancholy. The sound design is emphatic at certain points, intensifying the quietly building tension between these three major players (buttering toast has never been more intrusive). The old fashioned soundtrack fills the halls of the Woodcock household, frequently turning the movie into a lyrical and opulent movie. And being a movie about a dressmaker, it stands to reason that the costume design of the major dresses are immaculate, but even the everyday clothes of the characters are exceptional in conveying the emotions and personality of the wearers. The end result is a movie that is, to excuse the pun, dressed to perfection and an effortless movie to experience even as its second half ventures from standard romantic drama into something altogether weirder (if no less immaculately presented).
But as with any chamber-piece film like this, the window dressing can only get you so far and the success of the movie is entirely dependent on the actors in charge. Fortunately each of the central three are immaculate. Vicky Krieps as Alma has the tall task of going toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis, and she more than holds her own and is a revelation as a result. She is passive enough to make Alma attractive enough to be the elegantly boorish Reynolds’ muse, and yet strong enough to push back against his controlling personality in a believable way. Alma is like a revisionist Hitchcock-girl for the “Me-Too” age, giving as good as she takes.
Lesley Manville meanwhile has an even tougher task as Reynolds’ sister Cyril. She is clearly set up to be a villainous character in the movie and the chief obstacle between Alma and Reynolds’ relationship. Thus it would be easy for her to be a one-note character, a mere homage to Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers. But Manville does something remarkable in that she manages to clearly project Cyril’s cold icy public persona while revealing someone much more tender in private. As the movie goes on, her coldness towards Reynolds and Alma’s relationship changes from mere jealousy to something approaching looking out for the best interest in both of them. And in doing so she ceases to be a mere villain.
But while Krieps and Manville put on fantastic performances, this is well and truly Daniel Day-Lewis’ film in what is purported to be his last role. His performance is a delicate dance between the perfect picture of refined elegance and a much more prickly interior life that is revealed only to those who dare to get to close to him. He speaks in a silky smooth tone with each word an exercise in precision, each word perfectly chosen for maximal emotional impact for good or ill. And as with all of his best roles Day-Lewis assimilates into his character effortlessly, wearing his character’s skin as comfortable as he wears his clothes.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest might wrongfully suffer because it is not as outlandishly showy as his most popular work like There Will Be Blood or The Master. The movie is much more claustrophobic and self-contained than any of his movies except his debut Hard Eight. But in confining himself and in confining the actors he might have accomplished a more impressive feat as stripped from all his usual tricks he still manages to produce a romantic drama that is both a wonderful throwback to melodramas past and yet contemporarily compelling. Additionally the intimate nature of this movie gives us the perfect opportunity to get up, close, and personal one more time with Day-Lewis and watch the master at work. If this is to be the end of our onscreen relationship with Day-Lewis it is a good and fitting end indeed.