If Phantom Thread is to be Daniel Day Lewis’ last film, then the elegant portrayal of an obsessive 1950’s dressmaker is an almost perfect allegory for the actor. The film analyses Reynolds Woodcock, a famed fashion designer who creates garments for royalty, celebrities and high society. His fastidious attention to detail in his work spills over into his life, where all events are kept tightly strung into their proper place. In Reynolds, we see DDL perhaps showing a little of himself.
Over the years, the man has become an almost mythological figure of acting prowess. His method approach is whispered about, and the way he truly ‘lives’ as his characters is the stuff of imdb-trivia legend. In Phantom Thread, DDL finds a character who is a match for his own love of detail.
The film itself is a piece of beauty, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and treating the audience to a look at a man whose life is delicate, beautiful and furious all at once. Reynolds Woodcock is a man obsessed by detail, and his sister Cyril (played with staggering presence by Lesley Manville) helps him enforce a certain order. Even breakfast is a well-rehearsed routine that must be adhered too.
That is until Reynolds takes a trip to the country and meets Alma (Vicky Krieps). The rest of the film is a portrayal of a man coping with a new muse, and learning that she is her own person. Woodcock tries to force her into his routine, but the spirited girl has her own agenda and is unafraid to show it. And so we are treated to a power struggle that is played almost as a dance.
Throughout the film, piano music tingles and shots linger gorgeously, creating an almost dreamlike atmosphere sitting around the house of Woodcock. Control is everything to the man, but when Reynolds takes to the roads, we see glimpses of the fire inside of him. The driving scenes are excellent, with a front-on camera working in an almost maniacal fashion as Reynolds speeds along. These scenes are minor – but play a big part in showing the audience the truth: that Reynolds Woodcock, despite his pretentions, is full of the same furious passion that drives all creative energies.
His efforts in his home are an attempt to suppress these, from using his formidable sister to conveniently get rid of former muses with nothing more than a gift of a dress, through to carefully curated routines.
Ultimately, however, Alma represents an irrecoverable change in Reynolds’ life. It is their story that matters to the audience, and it’s through this lens Paul Thomas Anderson chooses to unstrip Reynolds and his life. To be honest, this was not a film I can say I loved, as the pacing takes its time, but I can recognise a masterpiece when I see it. It’s the There Will be Blood of an era of high society, politeness and snobbery borne from wealth.
Watch it if you liked: The Master, Magnolia.