It’s often said that Daniel Day Lewis is one of the best actors alive, someone who’s gone “method” and immerses himself in various roles. The wide disparity between the character types certainly demonstrates an actor with utter mastery of his craft, but some of his performances are more subtle than others.
Phantom Thread comes from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, who previously worked with Daniel Day Lewis on There Will Be Blood. The movie takes place in the 1950’s in the UK, following famous and respected fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (DDL), as he works always to achieve perfection in his craft but is terrible to actual people. The “genius artist” getting allowance to be awful. He is enabled by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who is the one that actually runs his business.
After dumping his current girlfriend, he travels to the country to his second home, only to pursue a local waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). Alma isn’t radiantly beautiful, but for some reason Reynolds is enchanted — perhaps he sees the fire that will soon burst forth. Alma has an ambiguous accent and origin, likely German or French, and doesn’t seem to have any family or local friends.
Reynolds sweeps her up and into his world, making her a model and a kind of muse, although the actual physical romance between them is stalled and hesitant. He seems to care more about work than anything else, and is very particular about his habits. Slowly their relationship evolves, becoming odd and dangerous, with twists and turns that reveal deep psychological damage for both of them. The resolution may horrify or disturb some people, or worse, it may even make them happy.
There are many layers here, and all sorts of interpretations that can be read into these characters and situations. Reynolds is the tortured artist that everyone makes excuses for even when he hurts people emotionally, a sort of man whose problems are ignored. There is a phantom thread of sorts too, his connection to his past and the literal thread he uses to hide that connection.
As to be expected, Daniel Day Lewis is phenomenal in this understated role, wildly different from his others, yet never feels false. This time he is matched by excellent acting across the board, including from Vicky Krieps in her first really substantive part. Not easy to go toe to toe with the Oscar winner here. Lesley Manville also does very well here, although it’s hard to say where the best performance lies.
The movie is tense, oddly romantic, and filled with awkward, difficult moments. This is the sort of movie that someone who’s a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson will likely adore, but if you couldn’t get through The Master, you likely won’t like this one either. It’s not a breezy watch, and although I really enjoyed it, I know it’s hardly the film for everyone. Film snobs should love it though.
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Phantom Thread has a run time of 2 hours 10 minutes and is rated R for language.