Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread ★★★★½

"Phantom Thread" is not your average gothic romance. For one, it stars veteran actor Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a man whose dressmaking skills are so revered that a fan tells him how she hopes "to be buried in one of [his] dresses." It's in a scene, made memorable by his interesting breakfast order, that he meets a young waitress named Alma, wonderfully played by Vicky Krieps, and charms her over. He's never been one to settle down before, but maybe now it's time that he lets someone crawl into the whirlwind world of his life's work.

The chemistry between the unlikely duo flies off the screen in the forms of upturned lips, gentle touches, and warm laughter. As described by director Paul Thomas Anderson, the scene where Woodcock takes Alma's measurements, for example, feels like a sex scene without the sex. Passion burns as Woodcock molds this simple, modest girl into a model for the British elite, but conflict (and even hilarity) brews as both grow closer and their true natures begin to unravel. Their relationship, and ultimately the movie, is a gradual but fascinating analysis of the human psyche, and the movie's kicker is when the true dynamic between them clicks into place. One can only wish that the movie dared to explore the more intriguing, if unconventional, dynamics of the characters' relationship. Instead the movie draws itself out at times, creating an unusual pacing that can put off a more impatient viewer. 

Narratively, it may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the movie is a technical marvel. The opening sequences are downright entrancing. I remember the audience sitting in cold, raw silence and awe throughout it. With minimum dialogue to begin with, Jonny Greenwood's score weaves a beautiful, lush symphony of pianos and violins. It's not often that a movie's music becomes its defining highlight and considerably lends itself to the overall narrative. It richly intermingles with the Downton Abbey-esque elegance oozing off the screen, creating an emmersive viewing experience in which you feel that you are quite literally in 1950's London, living and breathing and moving amongst the models and dressmakers of the House of Woodcock.

As always in Paul Thomas Anderson's films, the production is emmaculately detailed. Light streams skillfully yet naturally upon the characters, basking their features in illuminating glows. Richly-colored dresses and crisp suits are like purposeful paint strokes against the backdrop of bustling restaurants and creamy-white rooms. In signature Anderson style, the camerawork in the movie is admirable, too. It fluidly transitions between shots and doesn't stick to a single type of camera angle or movement; there's moments where the camera bounces behind a driving car, looks up at flowing fabrics and hands, and tracks characters passing through crowds. If the movie doesn't win Best Costume Design or get nominated for Best Original Music Score, I'll eat my hat.

"Phantom Thread" marks Daniel Day-Lewis' final installment in his filmography. According to W Magazine's interview with Daniel Day-Lewis this month, the film's production had taken an extreme emotional and mental toll on the method actor. In a conversation following a sneak preview of the film, director Paul Thomas Anderson admitted how "bittersweet" Daniel's departure was and how he hopes that the actor will "reconsider." Ten years ago, Daniel and Paul had collaborated in the widely-acclaimed "There Will Be Blood," and the anticipation for yet another powerhouse collaboration between them was high in the film community. The question is: is "Phantom Thread" as good as "There Will Be Blood"?

The debatable short answer is, unfortunately, no. It lacks the ingenious brevity of "There Will Be Blood," and it may be attributed to its limiting subject. "Phantom Thread" may as well be Paul's most thematically-simple work -- but it's admittedly still a mile-high above many other films. We've seen countless stories of an obsessive man whose life is driven by his work and who becomes infatuated with a beautiful muse, but on the other hand, we've never seen it done this well.

It's unfortunate that the simpleness of the narrative bleeds into the characters and thus the acting. Daniel is a master of his craft -- his 3 Best Actor Oscars attest to this -- and he does a fine job with the material he is given with in "Phantom Thread," but the material isn't challenging enough to bring the very best out of him. One almost feels slightly underwhelmed, especially considering that this is his last work. Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville, who plays Woodcock's sister Cyril, rightfully stand their ground against Daniel's acting chops, with Krieps going above and beyond in certain scenes. Her charming, sweet-faced look hides her character's darker innerworkings well. However, in comparison to his colleagues, Daniel Day-Lewis is nonetheless a formidable competitor for the 2018 Best Actor Oscar, rivaled possibly by only Gary Oldman in "Darkest Hour." It only takes his eyes to brim with tears, or a wistful smile to cross his face, to make one feel the aching loneliness and insecurity buried deep inside his character.

Honestly, I can be nitpicky and beat around the bush all day. But when it comes down to it, "Phantom Thread" is truly a cinematic experience. It has the right dialogue, cast, score, cinematography, and design -- though altogether they may not reach as high as they aim to be. But this film is a case in which the sum of the parts don't matter as much as the parts themselves. If you want to see filmmaking at its damn-near best, watch "Phantom Thread."

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