A few minutes into Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, we see one of Reynolds Woodcock’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) numerous routines. Even though he works from the comfort of his own home, he is both dressed and groomed immaculately, taking the care to straighten his jacket and comb back his hair. Given Day-Lewis’ notorious dedication to roles, one wonders if the routine is scripted or merely the actor preparing himself for what he has said will be his final performance.
It’s been five years since he played Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s biopic, and here we find the actor giving an even more understated performance, showcasing the nuance and meticulousness that has permeated his whole career. He’s perfect for the role of Woodcock, a dressmaker whose quest for perfection leaves the one’s around him occasionally exasperated. This isn’t shown in the stereotypical manner of violent outbursts, but rather by calculated requests; in an early scene, he quietly dismisses a partner as he “doesn’t want the confrontation”, sounding stern and forthright despite his softly-spoken manner.
After a trip down south, he is immediately besotted with Alma (Vicky Krieps), a German waitress who is mutual in her intrigue. They bond over his profession, enlisting his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) to measure the girl up and fit her with a dress – given Reynolds’ devotion to his work and the deliberately measured tone of Anderson’s screenplay, you are never quite sure if the relationship is more professional or romantic. Alma is yearning for the latter, with Krieps expertly capturing both the wide-eyed nature of an ingenue and the steely resolve of a woman who knows what she wants.
Unlike her predecessors, she’s not intimated by Woodcock, regularly bickering with the designer over his idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, bemoaning that his focus on them means he neglects those around him. For him, they are merely innate qualities within him, and characteristics that must be tolerated; Anderson shows both angles of the story, flickering between who the audience should side with, presenting a narrative that focuses on two characters who are both somewhat petulant in their attempts to impose themselves on the other and assert control.
The slow pacing is more in keeping with The Master than the director’s previous effort Inherent Vice, but the strange take on romance is something that can be dated as far back as 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love. The emotional distance between the two leads is a contrast to the work done within Woodcock’s house; each dress is intricately created, with closeups on the knitting process and many scenes dedicated to fitting. The world in which Reynolds and Alma inhabit is constructed to the same meticulous detail as the costumes; the house feels like a palace in parts, with the camera swirling around as if the audience was part of a Viennese Waltz, but exterior shots are largely static, symbolising how there is seemingly nothing for Reynolds outside of his work.
Though there is no credited director of photography – Anderson himself said that the cinematography was a collaborative effort – the film has a lovely old-fashioned feel to it. From intimate candlelight in Woodcock’s room to the rustic charm of rural England, each location is striking without being overbearing, creating a feel akin to Todd Haynes’ Carol. Key to recreating this classical charm is the use of music, and Jonny Greenwood’s – of Radiohead fame – score is superb here, ranging from subtle piano melodies to luscious string arrangements. When the emotions of the characters are heightened and a little rawer, Greenwood’s arrangements are powerful in their subtlety, going perfectly in tandem with a film in which the emotion derives from quietness and tenderness. There are no gut-punches or emotional peaks, meaning that the 130-minute running time is a tad unearned, but the attention to detail – ranging from the costumes to the production design – means that every second spent in this world is a visual delight.
The effect of the film is visualised by a scene in which we see Woodcock hiding messages in the lining of his dresses, symbolising Anderson’s willingness to have messages conveyed subliminally. The care in the design has been replicated into the thought for the characters, with Woodcock being simultaneously tender and cold, whilst also being eccentric and understated, providing a fitting swansong for one of the true acting greats.