Movie Review: ‘Phantom Thread’ Weaves a Masterful Tale

Movie Review: ‘Phantom Thread’ Weaves a Masterful Tale

In the Oscar-nominated Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the kind of stuffy British stereotype that wouldn’t be out of of place in an over-the-top comedy, the kind of “why, I never!” arthouse patron who faints at a whiff of the Marx Brothers’ antics. 

In one of the film’s key scenes, his 1950s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock chastises partner Alma (Vicky Krieps) for eating too loudly during breakfast while he’s trying to sketch. During the film’s climax, he all but breaks down when she prepares him asparagus with oil, when she knows he prefers it with butter. 

This could all be a bad joke, a lame Brit spin on Tennessee Williams, but in the hands of director Paul Thomas Anderson it becomes a chilly-cool observation of human relationships that feels as masterfully spun as something by Kubrick or Hitchcock. 

That’s partially because Alma (named, perhaps, after Alfred Hitchcock’s long-suffering wife) does indeed know that Reynolds takes his asparagus with butter. And that she’s distracting him during breakfast. 

He’s being too fussy, she determines. And she’s out to quietly break him.

Reynolds is a “confirmed bachelor” who lives and works with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). During the film’s opening scenes, in which he silently assents to Cyril’s offer to remove his current partner from their home, we infer that while he sometimes requires the presence of a lover, he can’t stand to be around them for too long. 

Alma is quick to pick up on the hints as she slides into Reynolds life, and realizes that if she doesn’t affect change within Woodcock himself she’ll simply end up tossed aside with the others. 

But the film makes it clear that Reynolds is not an innocent party held hostage by the will of Alma, even if he may well deserve to be, and her continued presence in his life confirms that he is a co-conspirator in its outcome. 

It’s an unusually insightful premise, the complexities of which can be transcribed to any intimate and continued collaboration between two people, and drawn from real insight into human relationships; the director is said to have been inspired by his own marriage to wife Maya Rudolph. 

Day-Lewis, has claimed that this will be his last feature film, as often does after each role, and he wonderfully milks the role to wryly comedic effect without turning into a caricature. But he’s evenly matched by Krieps as Alma, deserving of an Oscar nomination to match her co-star. 

While not as explosive as 2007’s There Will be Blood, the previous collaboration between Day-Lewis and Anderson, Phantom Thread is much less ambiguous and more accessible than the director’s two films since, The Master and Inherent Vice

A huge plus here is the melodic, era-authentic score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who also composed the music Anderson’s previous two films and the excellent You Were Never Really Here. It’s also been nominated for Academy Award, and ought to win. 

While most films about relationships focus on passion and love and romance and sex, this one is all about the intense mind games two people who care about each other play in order to co-exist. 

Phantom Thread is the plot of a Hitchcock film distilled into the story of a relationship, and brilliantly designed and staged and directed and acted, though perhaps admittedly not everyone’s proverbial cup of tea.

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