Reynolds Woodcock is difficult to like, and so is Phantom Thread, a film in which he’s the lead character.
Yet the latest collaboration between filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) and actor Daniel Day-Lewis, in what he claims will be his final role prior to retirement, is a meticulously crafted and visually striking character study that doesn’t require sympathy to be stunning.
Day-Lewis plays Woodcock, a fashion designer in 1950s London whose dresses are responsible for some of the city’s most glamorous aristocratic trends. His personal life is one of repetition and isolation, with the only intimacy provided by fleeting encounters with fawning models and socialite customers.
Woodcock sees fabric on a body the same way an artist views paint on a canvas. Yet he’s also cold and aloof — an idiosyncratic perfectionist who becomes irritated with the slightest alteration to his routine. His demanding sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), is his assistant and his only trusted companion.
Then he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), an impetuous young waitress who causes him to lower his guard, gradually infiltrating his tight inner circle and becoming a muse. Their burgeoning relationship throws Woodcock’s life into sudden turmoil, and the results aren’t always pretty, such as when his frosty temperament is put on full display during a dinner-table fight over asparagus that provides an uneasy highlight.
While the low-key relationship drama is difficult to penetrate emotionally, much like Woodcock himself, Day-Lewis immerses into a troubled character with a powerfully understated portrayal that captivates throughout. Relative newcomer Krieps (Hanna) conveys an alluring charisma, and Manville likewise is terrific as the enigmatic Cyril.
Anderson’s sharply subtle and deliberately paced screenplay gradually builds tension beneath the surface, especially in the second half with some off-the-wall twists. The filmmaker offers insight into the creative process while sprinkling in some lighthearted moments.
Meanwhile, the film exquisitely captures its setting and subject matter, supplemented by a persistent score by frequent Anderson cohort Jonny Greenwood that’s both haunting and evocative.
In its first hour, Phantom Thread takes on the same qualities as its protagonist — admirable from a distance while struggling to achieve intimacy. However, it develops into a seductive if slightly creepy portrait of a tortured genius that ultimately succeeds by becoming audaciously unfashionable.