A story made to measure for an incomparable thespian, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s divine, poetically scripted and unpredictable melodrama examines the impact of emotional upheaval on the fragile mind of a finely tuned creative. It stars triple-Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis as an esteemed dressmaker who underestimates his young muse, in what is mooted to be his final performance.
Anderson follows the idiosyncratic anarchy of his Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice with a very different picture: an original story, and his first set and shot outside the States. He brings his outsider’s eye to the mannered, meticulous but also bitterly cruel world of high fashion in his second collaboration with Day-Lewis (after 2007’s There Will Be Blood, for which the actor won his second Academy Award).
Unfolding for the most part in 1950s London, Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, the creator of bespoke, flamboyantly romantic gowns that are a favourite of royalty. A painful perfectionist whose quirks and sensitivities have been allowed to thoroughly bed in, we see him coldly dismiss his current squeeze Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), who has outgrown her usefulness; “I simply do not have time for confrontations,” he tells her when she attempts to discuss their relationship. The decision to conclude things with Johanna is taken in collaboration with his sister and business partner Cyril (a terrifying Lesley Manville), a near-permanent presence in his life.
A trip to the country shows us a more benign and charming side to Reynolds and results in a surprising “meet cute”. Ordering breakfast alone in a cafe, he becomes smitten with clumsy waitress Alma (Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps), who combines a girlish giggle with an unmistakable boldness; as she admires her dashing, mysterious and ravenously hungry customer, the feeling is evidently mutual.
The apparent purity of the moment is fatally undermined by the callous dismissal of her predecessor, and the ensuing romance takes us down an interesting, ultimately twisted path. We witness Alma’s attempts to render herself indispensable to this confirmed bachelor, who’s wedded to the memory of his dead mother.
Sporting shades of Pygmalion and the work of Daphne du Maurier, the film’s depiction of the complex dynamic between creator and muse is certainly more successful than Darren Aronofsky’s recent mother!, its observations more original, with more subtlety woven into the story.
Phantom Thread draws out the vulnerability of the artist and, in this instance, how obsessive mother-love and the relentless indulging of whims has nurtured a difficult personality. Reynolds is a spoilt man-child, and one whose fastidious approach to his craft has left him intolerant of the fundamental messiness of human beings. A normal life now seems unachievable and so, for Alma, a solution must be found.
Krieps is intriguingly ambiguous in a story with a rarefied air that’s by turns seductive, compassionate and sinister, and which increasingly takes Alma’s perspective of events, as if gradually teasing out her capability.
And yet this was always going to be Day-Lewis’s picture. How interesting that the chameleon-like, London-born star – who has so seldom played Englishmen – has tackled something closer to home in what may be the final film of his career, playing a formidable talent who, just like him, has shied from the spotlight. As we watch his alter ego unravel it all feels rather intimate. Is the actor allowing us to peer behind the curtain right at the last? If this is to be his swan song, what a fine and fitting departure.
Phantom Thread is released in cinemas on Friday 2 February