At first glance, Phantom Thread looks like a stuffy period piece. Daniel Day-Lewis as a dressmaker in 1950s London? Is this another The Age of Innocence?
Bring that attitude to the theater, because you’ll be surprised by what writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson actually has in store. Eschewing his recent nonlinear style, it’s a narrative-driven, surprisingly funny three-person film about love, need, and the way they twist together.
At first, the story revolves around the complexities of loving an artist. Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is one of England’s most beloved dressmakers, running a shop with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) by his side. She does most of the dirty work, including removing women when Woodcock grows tired of them. But when he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps) and invites her to return home with him, their carefully constructed family dynamic is disrupted.
Most people are aware that this is Daniel Day-Lewis’s swan song; he claims that he’s retiring from acting, effectively immediately. If so, this is certainly not the grandiose exit you’d expect from one of our all-time great actors, but it is appropriate for someone who threw himself into the work and ignored all the bullshit. Woodcock is a deeply focused individual who uses his brilliance as an excuse to wall himself off from the world; DDL’s charm and prowess shine through in showing the cracks in that facade, and in making his love for Alma feel uniquely real.
At first, it’s clear that Woodcock is a boorish tyrant and Alma is a sweet girl who’s swept away by blind youthful affection. Yet as we move forward, you begin to wonder if Alma scratches an itch he'd kept hidden away. And by the end, it seems these two are meant for each other after all. But were they always? Is Alma shaped by Woodcock’s assholery, not to mention her own lack of options, and forced to counter appropriately? Or did he stumble upon the perfect match: someone who isn’t afraid to match wits and—more importantly—isn’t above making selfish choices of her own to maintain the strange balance between them?
Add to that a perfect score from Jonny Greenwood, a lock for his long-awaited first Oscar nomination, and Anderson’s usual brilliance in capturing the perfect shot, and you’ve got something special. Its biggest flaw is a whiff of being inconsequential: minor PTA, you might say. There Will Be Blood felt massive and probing in its examination of American greed, and Inherent Vice—for all its flaws—was as ambitious as it gets. This is a more intimate film in every sense of the word, one that delves into deep topics but still never gives off a vibe of significance.
Anderson is known for his sprawling ensemble casts—Boogie Nights, Magnolia, the aforementioned Vice—but it’s really more of an all-or-nothing deal with him: a huge group of actors and actresses or a tiny one. Phantom Thread proves far more in line with The Master and There Will Be Blood in its compactness, yet also much less intentionally challenging to its audience. It’s as if Anderson knew 1950s dressmaking would be a distancing subject matter and paired with a linear story and a small cadre of performers.
In his own way, the famed auteur uses Phantom Thread to make a series of surprisingly sweet points: Relationships thrive when they find balance, the best partners embrace each other’s flaws, and there’s a perfect match out there for everyone. Much like in Punch-Drunk Love—albeit less pleasantly—Woodcock and Alma discover that they need each other. What helps this film rise above its inessential feel are the questions it raises: Is love natural, or is it built by situation and circumstance? And, most importantly, does that even matter?