Have you ever seen a match stick house? They’re beautiful, quaint and instantly flammable.
Watching Phantom Thread, itself a beautiful and considered construction, you can’t escape the niggling sensation that it’s a spark away from all blowing up. Director Paul Thomas Anderson holds the fire inches from our faces, and as with any ember its hard not to sit transfixed.
Woodcock, a prestige dressmaker in 1950’s London (Daniel Day-Lewis), is a man of order. His breakfasts, dinners, routines, needling and all else suffer not the pangs of diversion nor irregularity, nor does his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who, like her brother, knows the value predictability has lent their enterprise.
Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps). Early adopted as Woodcock’s flame, muse and among the various contributors in his opulent home, which too serves as his place of work, her presence, to say the least, creates a fundamentally altered dynamic between the three central figures.
Phantom Thread is a film obsessed as much with order as it is control. Anderson, rendering the distinction on screen, shrewdly draws the title from the function of garment makers who find themselves continuing their daily tasks at random times absent the customary thread. Woodcock, ordered in every sense but equally dependent on external forces and the influence of his sister, is a man ensconced in his superstitions and routines, never mundane but dependent in part on the surrender of certain faculties else it all come tumbling down. The dire consequences of this outwardly benign but inescapably noxious dynamic for all involved are uniquely intriguing
Anderson’s latest is first and foremost a beautiful film, tackling ideas of artistry and sightly pleasures amidst exquisitely tailored costumes and an ornate setting. The similarities in style and substance to its star’s earlier effort The Age of Innocence will not be lost on fans, though this film ensues in more contemplatively meditative than compulsive fashions. The main figure, less restrained by society than by himself, offers a fascinating character study of a type of temperament rarely evinced on screen.
Day-Lewis, reliably captivating and practised in what is ostensibly his final film role, and sadly so if it is indeed the case, is as in any of his outings a sight to behold. Rising to exacerbation at times only on the signal of one oft-repeated expletive, this recurrent addition is but the one conspicuously ill-judged aspect of Anderson’s screenplay and his characterisation of a challenging and variedly unsympathetic figure who visits his best and worst attributes on all concerned.
Too laden with the age-old conundrums that both compound and distance art from artist, Phantom Thread, as much as any current feature or ever-present dissection of Hollywood elites, serves to question whether it is at all necessary or conversely crucial to interminably marry a creator with their output. In the traditions of so many filmmakers and the like Woodock literally weaves personal mementos into his work that many would not so laud should they know his character, while others would just as well content themselves with admiring his handiwork.
Anderson’s concoction laconically challenges whether we can or should appreciate Woodcock’s garments so far as we know their underpinnings; too questioning whether his creations are inextricably linked with the way he treats his ostensibly most beloved. A not dissimilar dilemma, in polar circumstances, is too wrested upon the audience when Woodcock is confronted with a patron who, whilst simply a purveying customer, conducts themselves in such a manner that, in the tempestuous mind of Woodcock, would by extension bring ignominy to his brand.
As good as Day-Lewis is, it is Manville, quietly though ever so powerfully striding the action, who manages some of the most memorable sequences, not least of all when Cyril challenges her brother, or otherwise quietly conveys a heft of emotion through a placid glare. Krieps, navigating the most striking aspects of what could otherwise have been a largely predictable screenplay save the later, disruptive turn of events, near matches her co-stars engrossing turns, even if a tract of faux narration jars the proceedings for existing wholly outside the tone otherwise set by the film.
Deftly paced and shrewdly introspective in the best traditions of Anderson, Phantom Thread is a film that rewards the quiet, focused consideration so valued by its fixtures.
Phantom Thread is in cinemas now