REVIEW: Phantom Thread (2017)

US Theatrical Release Poster – Focus Features

The following is a review of Phantom Thread — Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

When Daniel Day-Lewis — one of the most decorated and, arguably, one of the best actors of all-time — signs on to star in a film, you pay attention to that film. When someone like Day-Lewis then re-teams with a director who, when they last worked together, brought an Oscar-winning performance out of the thespian, you become excited by every piece of news about it.

When that same actor thereafter then announces his retirement, thus making his latest project — Phantom Thread — potentially his last, then that film becomes even more important than you once imagined. Now Phantom Thread had to be strong enough to serve as a farewell outing for the thespian, and his performance had to live up to the quality that one has come to expect from him. Thankfully, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread doesn’t disappoint — it is a rich genre-bending thriller masquerading as a costume drama.

At first, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, which takes place during the mid-Twentieth Century, appears to be a costume drama about a driven high-end fashion designer who is more interested in his lifework than in his personal well-being. He appears to be satisfied with switching out his muses whenever they step out of line even slightly. This obsessive fashion designer — Reynolds Woodcock (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) — relies on his sister — Cyril Woodcock (played by Lesley Manville) — to dismiss and dump his muses.

It is only when Reynolds meets a young and slender waitress — Alma (played by Vicky Krieps) — that the nature of the confirmed bachelor’s unattached status — and the true nature of the film — reveals itself. Reynolds is so attached to his late mother that he has had a lock of his mother’s hair sewn into his jacket.

As Reynolds, at one point notes, he is not frightened by the idea that those who have passed away keep an eye on us from beyond the grave. Indeed, his love for his mother influences his actions and desires throughout the film. In a sense, she was his first muse, and when we first meet him he is still searching for someone suitable to take his mother’s place permanently.

Alma, his latest muse, may look like yet another impressionable young woman to be easily cast aside by the Woodcocks, but she is not scared off by Reynolds’ stubborn routine and his oppressive orders. As Alma repeatedly and unsuccessfully tries to modify the incorrigible Reynolds Woodcock, she must decide how far she will go to be what they both need.

And that’s pretty much all I’ll say about the plot of the aforementioned thriller masquerading as a costume drama, which absolutely did frighten and shock me in ways I had not expected it to. Paul Thomas Anderson makes use of composer Jonny Greenwood’s excellent score, which deftly brings some shifts in tone together to blur the lines between thriller, romance, and high-end fashion period piece. Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest work is a masterful motion picture and it includes a delicate and nuanced musical score.

As Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “retirement is the filthiest word in the [English] language.” When actors retire it, to me, feels so definitive, when in reality it may just mean that the artist is taking a long hiatus from his or her lifework. An actor’s retirement is especially hard to stomach, when said actor is someone as beloved, decorated, and incomparable as the great Daniel Day-Lewis. His dedication to his craft is the stuff of legends, and, as a result, many of his performances are equally legendary.

That one can elegantly go from playing the driven and contemptuous Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood to being the equally driven but revered and, frankly, iconic president in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln in little more than a handful of years speaks volumes about the attention to detail and talent of the endlessly modifiable Daniel Day-Lewis.

As I see it, though his strikingly precise performance as Reynolds Woodcock might not ever become as iconic as the two aforementioned performances are, it is just as phenomenal as those two performances, which earned him two of the Academy Awards in his possession. His is such a fully formed character that all of his poses seem established and habitual, his stares can be measured and meticulous — I could go on and on. If this, indeed, is to be his final performance, it is a spectacular high note to end on as the curtain falls.

But the film is not just a one-man show, or even merely an acting showcase. It is a rich story that I am eager to return to and rewatch. And one of the reasons why is that Day-Lewis’ performance is one of three truly outstanding performances none of which are ever overpowering. Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps both go toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis.

Most actors — men and women — would probably be nervous about acting across from Day-Lewis in all of the pivotal scenes in what appears to be his farewell film, but if Vicky Krieps was at all nervous, then the final product certainly doesn’t show it. In what will undoubtedly be remembered as her breakout role, Vicky Krieps acts like a true veteran and this is as much her film as it is Day-Lewis’.

Manville’s remarkable performance makes her character feel appropriately structured, intelligent, and almost viper-like in the way that you get the sense that her character is ready and perfectly able to pounce upon anyone overstepping her bounds. She is well-spoken, prepared, precise, and able to hand out devastating and delicious commentary that is sure to disarm anyone in her way.

From one point of view, the fact that Phantom Thread appears to be Daniel Day-Lewis’ last film makes it an instant tragedy. However, in actuality, this is a triumph. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is a masterful new film in an already outstanding filmography, which now includes this wonderfully rich story about relationship dynamics, power, control, and a respected artist with an oedipus complex. I went in expecting an ordinary period piece, but what I ultimately got was a relationship thriller disguised by velvet, velour, and all sorts of pretty fabric.

10 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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