Daniel Day-Lewis revels in his final role whilst Paul Thomas Anderson does what he does best, making fascinating what should be the truly mundane.
There’s something so sumptuously mischievous about Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth directorial effort, it’s difficult to come out of it feeling anything but unwittingly hypnotised. There’s a palpable sense of allure and precision that runs through it, each element perfectly harmonised with the others, that’s eager to draw its audience in like a siren’s song and ravish them. The feat is admirable: draw too much blood and you risk pretension; draw too little and you become nothing more than bitterly simplistic. Phantom Thread floats right in the sweet spot between the two – and it all starts with breakfast.
Several breakfasts, actually. “I can’t begin my day with a confrontation,” says Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), renowned fashion designer at the heart of 1950s British couture, who despises any threat to the tranquillity and routine that earmarks his working days. Haunted by the loss of his mother, the obsessive, often neurotic Reynolds weaves magnificence through the dresses he designs, sewing hidden ‘blessings’ into their linings, unbeknownst to their buyers. The first breakfast comes at the film’s beginning: it is morning and Reynolds sits with his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who helps run the dress-making business. Also at the table is an elegant young woman called Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), and a plate of croissants and iced pastries, which he disdains. For both, he appears to have lost his appetite.
For breakfast no. 2, Reynolds drives to the coast and sits down, famished, at a nearby restaurant. Waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) takes his order, a list that goes on longer than the end credits of Lord of the Rings: Welsh rabbit with a poached egg, bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam, a pot of Lapsang souchong, and some sausages. I have a feeling only Daniel Day-Lewis could make such a list of foodstuffs sound like the Ten Commandments. He asks if Alma will dine with him that night, she accepts – blushing, but with no trace of shyness – and enters the sanctum of his inner life, becoming Reynolds’ next muse.
Phantom Thread is a conclusively stylish film, though it doesn’t dwell on it. In fact, it is a film haunted by a fear that an obsession with style alone is akin to a steady self-destruction. More than anything, Phantom Thread is a ghost story, both literally and less so. “There’s an air of quiet death in this house,” Reynolds says. The death of the self, the death of love, the death of ambition and significance and self-awareness; and the resurrection of them all. That’s what haunts Phantom Thread, in its bleak yet beaming stylistic decorum, in its dauntless, swooning score (earning composer Jonny Greenwood his first, long-awaited Academy Award nomination), in each performance, like a hidden threaded message – a phantom blessing – sewn into the lining of a dress.
Phantom Thread (2018), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures International, certificate 15.