I lay in bed for some time this morning tossing about in my mind how best to convey the impact of Phantom Thread. I’ve only got one shot at this and I don’t want to tarnish my impression by getting all luvvie about it, or resorting to my overused canon of superlatives. I will try therefore to create a picture that captures my sense of wonder as I sat in Edinburgh’s Cameo cinema last night watching the masters at work; those masters being Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis.
If, as is rumoured, we are never to see Day-Lewis on our screens again this should be cause for mourning because the man has no peer – he has won three of his leading actor Oscars (from 5 nominations) and this is his sixth. There’s a reason for that.
In Phantom Thread, Day-Lewis is caressed by PTA’s quite stunning camerawork (not only did he write and direct the movie, he is its cinematographer to boot) in a way that is usually reserved for leading ladies. (Darren Aranofsky was accused of overdoing so in his fine Mother! with his muse and real life partner Jennifer Lawrence last year.) But that’s because it’s as if PTA is trying to squeeze every ounce of juice out of Day-Lewis’s colossal performance. It’s hardly surprising because Day-Lewis takes craggy, older man, handsomeness to a new scale (he was 60 during filming).
He plays a 1950’s London based couturier with a client list of Royalty and society movers and shakers. Clinically obsessed with quality this makes him mildly sociopathic and he is certainly ‘on the scale’. He’s kept in check by an icy protector – his sister Cyril: an aloof Lesley Manville, in a career-defining-performance in which she constantly reminded me of Anna Massey’s Mrs Danvers in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca – the TV adaptation from 1979.
Day-Lewis’s personal tics, foibles, routine, sense of decorum and inner sociopathic tendencies simmer just below, occasional breaching, the surface for the entire two and a bit hours of this masterful performance and represent a case study in containment. For my money this is by far and away a superior acting achievement than Gary Oldman’s, show-stealing, Winston Churchill impersonation in the downright boring and turgid Darkest Hour.
His confirmed bachelorhood, devotion (or certainly commitment) to his sister and a necessary effeteness, in keeping with his status as a master dressmaker, suggest initially that Day Lewis’s character, Reynolds Woodcock, is assuredly homosexual. But this is quickly dispelled upon a weekend trip to ‘the country’ in a humorously ‘overcranked’ road trip to Whitby in a gorgeous burgundy Bristol 405.
In his lodgings Woodcock meets, and immediately invites to dinner, the breakfast waitress who quickly becomes his lover and muse, thereby dispelling any homosexuality theories. Alma, a European girl, of indistinct national origin (although actress Vicky Krieps is from Luxembourg) is sweet, defiantly ‘un beautiful’ in the classic flimstar definition, with breasts that are ‘too small’ and a face that has a rugged outdoors sensitivity. She soon matches Day-Lewis for lingering camera sweeps as the movie settles into a slow thesis on what becomes a complex power struggle of a relationship; in which Cyril makes three.
Krieps is surprisingly missing from most awards shortlists which amazes me because she is no third best in this tremendous acting menage. Her performance is spare and engrossing and she trades punches all the way with both Day-Lewis and Manville.
Silk, organza and lace also feature lovingly in a pean to the craftsmanship of dressmaking. Indeed, such was PTA and DDL’s attention to detail that PTA hired seamstresses rather than actors to play the boutique roles, and DDL learned to sew, making his wife a dress, in his classic method practice.
Sitting high in the credits, and rightly so, is Production Designer Mark Tildesley, because he creates a sense of place that marks this is a classic period drama. This is aided and abetted by the extraordinary film grain that PTA elects to use, to further enhance Tildesley’s sense of place (if not time – not time because movies of that era would be either super saturated colour or black and white, the film grain he employs is redolent, instead, of amateur photography of the period).
And lastly, I have to make mention of the extraordinary score by Jonny Greenwood. Nothing could be further from his Radiohead work. It is classically styled with nods to Chopin in particular and underscores the movie almost throughout. This adds a sense of wonder so some of the slower, more crafted, scenes where action is at a premium.
All in all this has reinstated Paul Thomas Anderson as my favourite director after his one career slip with the abysmal Inherent Vice. It sits alongside Punch Drunk Love, Magnolia, There will be Blood and The Master as film making of craft and distinction.
I sat with mouth agape, grinning like a 50’s child watching a box set of Disney, for much of the film, in sheer wonderment at the genius that is Paul Thomas Anderson.
It is not to be missed, although, be warned, it moves along at a pace that could best be described as languid.