Reynolds Woodcock, the fictional couturier played by 60-year-old Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, is a man who needs women in his life. While the ghost of his mother, who taught Reynolds his trade, remains close to his heart (thanks to the locks of her hair that he’s secretly stitched into the canvas breast of his jacket), it’s his slightly older sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who handles the business end of the House of Woodcock in mid-1950s London. Although he designs the extravagant dresses, Cyril takes care of most of his affairs—sometimes literally, as when she steps in to terminate the short-lived relationships between her hypersensitive younger brother and the live-in companions who briefly serve as his muses.
The latest lovely to wear out her welcome (Camilla Rutherford) is dispatched offscreen and coldly given a dress as a form of severance even before the film’s ornate title card appears; hidden in plain sight within the words “Phantom Thread” are Anderson’s first and middle initials, a detail that dovetails nicely with Woodcock’s signature of sewing secret messages into every garment that he creates, such as the embroidered phrase “never cursed” that he’s stitched into the hem of a wedding gown to be worn by a Belgian princess.
As a man ruled by routine, it doesn’t take Reynolds long to meet a new paramour, during one of this film’s many scenes set during breakfast. Taking Cyril’s advice, Reynolds leaves London for a sojourn in their country estate. Before arriving in the Bristol sedan he enjoys driving at dangerously high speeds, he makes a stop, settling down to eat at a small seaside cafe where he catches the eye of a clumsy young waitress, a porcelain-skinned beauty whose face becomes flushed with pink as she trips just after entering his view. Her name is Alma (34-year-old Luxembourgian Vicky Krieps, star of Ingo Haeb’s The Chambermaid, a little-seen German film from 2014), which we learn when the Eastern European-accented girl slips a note to “the hungry boy,” anticipating his offer to take her to dinner that evening. It’s clear that Reynolds has met his match.
When filming wrapped on Phantom Thread’s 68-day shoot, Day-Lewis released a statement announcing his retirement from acting. If this proves to be true, then the three-time Best Actor winner has gone out on a high note in a performance that finds him speaking in a voice far closer to his own than we’re used to hearing from this most chameleonic of actors, who last portrayed our 16th president in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
Here’s the real shocker, though: As great as Day-Lewis is in this role, Krieps has done the unfathomable, going toe-to-toe with the Oscar winner in a surprising role that does not go where you expect. This is also a credit to Anderson’s exceptional script, which pays homage to the gothic romance of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), from its midcentury glamour to the triangular dynamic of its characters, which also provides a meaty part for Manville.
Beyond the plot, the movie is stunning to both look at and listen to. When cinematographer Robert Elswit (who won an Oscar for shooting Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, and who shot all of the director’s films, save The Master) proved unavailable, Anderson decided to act as his own uncredited director of photography, aided and abetted by chief lighting technician and longtime gaffer Michael Bauman, camera/steadicam operator Colin Anderson (no relation), first assistant cameraman Erik Brown and grip Jeff Kunkel. One of the few directors still shooting on film, Anderson wanted fine grain that wouldn’t be terribly noticeable when he blew his 35mm negative up to 70mm for select presentations (including an engagement at Coolidge Corner Theatre), but he soon came to realize that heavy grain would be how he’d achieve his intentionally flat-looking period effect—the same look he and Bauman developed for a Radiohead music video. And speaking of Radiohead, the band’s lead guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood, Anderson’s usual collaborator, writes a score with haunting piano and string cues that immeasurably add to the old Hollywood feel achieved with Anderson’s classically shot and framed film.
Ultimately, Phantom Thread is a director/star pairing that we rarely see or hear anymore in a business now dominated by superhero cinema. And there’s nothing more heroic than that. ◆
Starring Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Gina McKee, Julia Davis, Lujza Richter, Camilla Rutherford, Sue Clark, Joan Brown, Harriet Sansom Harris, Emma Clandon and Brian Gleeson. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. At Boston Common and Kendall Square, with an exclusive 70mm engagement at Coolidge Corner.