Phantom Thread: Another Wonderfully Subversive PTA Character Study
Review by Aaron Haughton
Phantom Thread is the latest from auteur director Paul Thomas Anderson, and the film not only marks his collaborative return with Daniel Day Lewis (in his [supposed] final performance), but also marks PTA’s first attempt at conducting his own cinematography (although he takes no credit for it). It’s one of the most anticipated films of the year, and it was well worth the wait — it doesn’t disappoint, and is without a doubt one of the year’s crème Del la crème. However, with that being said, I don’t think it will be everyone’s cup of tea, but shouldn’t alienate any devout PTA fans. It’s a step up from Inherent Vice and on the level with There Will Be Blood. If you’re looking another Boogie Nights, you won’t find it here, and it may not eclipse the artistry exhibited in TWBB, but it’s as fine a send off performance as one could hope for from Day-Lewis.
The film takes place in 1950s London in the high society fashion world where renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) are dead center. The distinguished siblings dress royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutants and dames with their distinct style of The House Of Woodcock, and they both take their work extremely serious. Women come and go through Woodcock’s life, providing him with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young, strong-willed woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who becomes a permanent fixture in his life. Phantom Thread is an illuminating portrait of an artist on a creative journey and the women who keep his world running.
Right away, the tone is set by Jonny Greenwood’s most romantic, overtly beautiful and accessible score to date. As is the case with his other PTA scores, Greenwood’s compositions and choice of musical instrumentations resonates at the perfect harmony to marry with the visuals and mood of the film; however, his efforts with Phantom Thread take his talents to a higher level. His scoring plays under 90 Of the films 120 minutes, which is enough to basically constitute it as a character in its own right, and Anderson uses the score to enchant you, to seduce (and destroy) you with its elegance, sweeping you away into Woodcock’s world. Once you’re whisked away, the score begins to mimic the underlying mood of the scene or character — like when Alma and Woodcock argue, and the score disbands it’s classical orchestrations and swells with the layered dissonance of guitar and microphone feedback. The film is slow to get moving, and Greenwood’s score (along with Day-Lewis’ typically phenomenal chapter rendering) helps to keep the blood flowing.
The story is framed by Alma, who is speaking directly to an unknown individual about Woodcock and their relationship. From there, we see a glimpse of what Woodcock's life is like before he encounters Alma. He's a "confirmed bachelor," and we see how he uses and handles the women in his life. It doesn't take long before we're introduced to Woodcock's controlling and superstitious idiosyncrasies, and how a harmless morning disruption can sour the whole of his day — something that is explored in such a way that the morning meal transforms into a supremely comical affair with buttered toasted that sounds like a booming construction site.
It isn't until Alma and Woodcock meet cute in a restaurant, however, before the films begins to pick up and becomes interesting. Krieps, who plays Alma in the film, is instantly charming from the restaurant scene on. I had never heard of her before until this film, but she has a lot of undeniable talent, which is immediately obvious as soon as you see her go toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis. Skimming her discography, it appears that Phantom Thread is her first big role, so it'll be exciting to see what her career has in store for her in the years to come. Day-Lewis' portrayal of Reynolds Woodcock is beautifully articulate and wryly funny. He's never been anything short of exceptional and Phantom Thread is no exception. His rendering here definitely ranks amongst his best, but falls a little short of being his most commanding performance (I'm partial to Daniel Plainview and The Butcher myself). Krieps, however, is the true gem here, if you can believe that, and the chemistry that she and Day-Lewis share is something to behold.
Phantom Thread falls right in line with Anderson's previous subversive character studies, but is far more subtle in his approach. The subversive elements aren't there automatically, and slowly but surely creep up on you in increasingly delightful ways. I think that the omelette scene in the film's third act may be on par with ending of TWBB, but I may be alone in that respect. Unlike The Master, Phantom Thread has a sparkling quality that shines throughout and isn't solely limited to a handful of solid scenes. It's also the shortest PTA film we've gotten since Punch Drunk Love. Even then, the film could've condensed slightly to duck under the 2 hour limit, but doesn't overstay its welcome, either.
PTA's direction is as neat and composed as it's ever been. His cinematography at first glance appears to be nothing spectacular, but has a hazy, dreamlike quality to it that grows on you over time. By the conclusion, I was really enamored with his chops as a cinematography and am excited to see if he continues explores this new role in the future. In particular, Anderson's use of deep focus is at his best here. I don't how he did it, but no matter how many times the characters go up and down the Woodcock house's staircase, it was always exciting. Dylan Tichenor, who also worked with PTA on Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, does another standout job. Here, Tichenor edits everything into an intoxicating package that flows with the grace and ease of a seasoned seamstress.
Aside from Krieps' shockingly good performance, the other delightful surprise about Phantom Thread is just how funny it is. I wasn't really expecting it to have much humor at all, but it's wildly funny in a cheeky way. The humor is also more cutting than anything PTA has done previously. Things that normally wouldn't be construed as funny — like buttering toast — become some of the best comedic setups of the year.
Anyways, I can't say enough good things about the film. It's a shoo in for 2017 top ten lists, and boasts several of the must-see performances of the year. Definitely do not take a pass here. See it on the biggest screen, and do it in 70mm, if you have the chane.
Rating: 5 sewn secrets outta 5.
Did the film work for you? Was this the best Greenwood score? Was this a worthy last hurrah for Daniel Day Lewis? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!