Daniel Day Lewis is on peak form in Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful introspective melodrama.
Jacob Richardson | 1/02/2018
Set in 1950s London, Phantom Thread follows Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis), a prolific dressmaker for the high society and elite. His business affairs are managed by his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). After a break-up and the completion of a new dress, Reynolds finds himself down and haunted by visions of his dead mother. Cyril recommends a trip to the countryside, and while there Reynolds becomes taken with one of the waitresses he meets; a young girl named Alma (Vicky Krieps). Alma initially enjoys being his muse, love interest and assistant, watching him work and walking for him. But Reynolds is an obsessive; a man for whom routine is a must, and the wilful Alma butts heads with him repeatedly as they try to work out whether there is something there, or where Reynolds’ obsessive, controlling personality is too big a gap to bridge.
Paul Thomas Anderson brings such a steady hand to a film, and it’s evident from the off in his latest. Every choice is so methodical, and, undoubtedly, beautiful. Anderson capitalises on the regality of his setting, creating an aura of antiquated fame around Reynolds that is at once captivating and repulsive. He’s a man who is immediately identified as compulsive, but also one to be admired. Anderson’s prodigious directorial skill is on full display as we get a master class in character building right from the off; a simple scene of Reynolds getting dressed that is transformed by Anderson’s camera into a treatise on his life, lies and personality.
Indeed, one could pick apart this scene by scene and write a novel. It’s incredibly well put together, and Anderson plays with genre bending elements to craft a film that is at once resplendent in old-world classism, while also being, at times, downright titillating. His use of music is particularly cognisant of this. We often hear the swelling themes that, in melodrama, would signal a great romantic revelation or occasion here played over the top of some kinky scene designed to raise your eyebrows. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that serves to give just as much story to the audience as the script does.
That being said, Anderson’s script is also tremendous. It’s full of great little moments that echo around your head, spoken alternately by the memories of the films two leads, for days afterwards. But one of the most impressive things about Anderson’s latest is in his ability to convey story without speech.
This is where it falls to the actors, and there is no-one better than Day Lewis. His Reynolds is a slightly effeminate, ever commanding, knowing and Freudian angst-filled pictorial of fame and power in 50s England. Day Lewis is a towering talent, and his capacity to fill the room with flair and vitality in the slightest of scenes is a wonder to behold. He struts through studio rooms, glares over breakfast foods, grins on the verge of death and barks at inconsiderate purchasers with a confidence that purveys his entire performance. In Day Lewis’ hands, Reynolds is utterly in command of his environment; the towering commander of a ship beset by waves that, against it’s massive hull, look positively puny. However, any actor could do that. The true talent in Day Lewis is that, while he struts and tuts, strides and divides, his performance conveys the subtle undertones of a Freudian longing for submissiveness that we discover later in the film. There’s an air of reluctance with his position; whether it’s discussing how he wished his Nanny would have helped him create his first dress, or being verbally battered in an argument by Cyril. And Day Lewis plays it perfectly.
He’s ably supported by his co-stars in Krieps and Manville, who are both utterly tremendous. Krieps is particularly remarkable, holding her own against the best actor in the world with barely a falter. She is raw, emotional, and powerful. Her performance can flick from sultry and seductive to emotionally distraught and stuttering to conniving, all in a blink of an eye. It’s in these three actors that the film is made, and Anderson, having worked so often with Day Lewis and being such a tremendous conveyer of atmosphere, knows it. He lets it happen. He sits back and focuses on shot angle and the beauty of the piece, and lets these world class performers do their job. He gives them a script that emboldens them; that asks them to reach within and find the character, and they step up to the plate.
There’s a brief scene where Reynolds charges through a crowded New Years Eve party to find Alma, who has run off so that she could spend the night dancing after Reynolds refused to attend. He finds her pressed up against the wall, scared, afraid and angry. Reynolds has just witnessed her almost crushed by the throng of the party, and is undoubtedly terrified that she has been hurt. But she has also broken his rules, and in his obsessive, controlling life that is just not done. Now, Anderson could have had these two thrash it out in the street, a long argument where they detail their issues, but instead he gives them space. He frames the two on either side of the shot, and gives them time. Not much - maybe 60 seconds. But we watch a minute of unspoken communication between these two; we see Day Lewis bring concern and worry and love to Alma, we see Krieps rebuff it, we see Day Lewis hurt and plead, and Krieps again rebuffs it. Then we see Day Lewis anger, and Krieps fear, and somewhere mixed in amongst all of that is a swirling mix of indefatigable love and unconquerable loathing.
It’s a scene you see so rarely; two actors being given the space to tell the story through body language alone. It’s a scene you see told well even less often, because it requires actors at the top of their game and a director who joins them there. It’s a scene that, should Day Lewis’ proposed retirement hold, will undoubtedly become more rare. But it’s a scene that conveys hope, because even though Day Lewis may go, with Phantom Thread, Anderson announces Krieps as his equal.
Phantom Thread is a visually stunning, stirring and compulsively watchable atmospheric masterpiece, with yet another world class performance from Daniel Day Lewis that is admirably matched by that of his co-star, Vicky Krieps.