Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread ★★★½

"Maybe he is the most demanding man." ~ Alma

In a word, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is nuanced. That makes it a beautiful thing to watch -- an exquisite combination of excellent acting, lovely period sets and costumes, and craftsman-like directing. It is certainly worthy of the six Oscar nominations it received, and should win at least one or two. But subtle films are rarely big winners at the box office, and this character-driven study of a romantic relationship doesn't lend itself well to plot summaries, so let me recount the tops and bottoms here.

1. Daniel Day Lewis is a master thespian. His portrayal of the 1950s haute couture designer Reynolds Woodcock is as solid as I've ever seen him on screen. He makes the most mundane actions seem significant -- shaving, pouring tea, pulling a thread, measuring an arm, refusing a drink -- he's amazing. His BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Leading Actor are totally deserved, even if this year's field has even better performers taking the top prizes.

2. Lesley Manville as Woodcock's sister and business partner Cyril is very well played. She seems to be the less creative of the siblings, but she's in charge and she knows it, using every skill in the feminine playbook to protect and support her talented brother. Will she win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress? Unlikely. But again, she's deserving of the nomination.

3. PTA has been nominated for Oscar's eight times now, and I really, truly feel this is his turn to win the Best Achievement in Directing award. Just consider the pacing, emotional layering and restrained elegance we see here. The other four directors nominated against him have told better stories, but as I noted at the start, this is not a plot-driven film. It is art. It is beautiful. It deserves major recognition -- even if the Academy hasn't figured out yet what a credit his craft is to filmmakiing.

4. Luxembourg native Vicky Krieps turns in a fine performance as Woodcock's love interest Alma. I marveled at how she grew in character slowly throughout the film, from somewhat clumsy, hesitant waitress to self-defining muse, far from the mannequin she may have appeared at times. What I did not like was how effortlessly she falls into his rhythm from the very first date. I didn't like the lack of backstory for her, too, and can only assume from her accent and last name (Elson) she was supposed to be from Scandinavia. The mushroom episodes are genius, but that's PTA's scripting, not her acting. The same goes for the retrieval of the blue gown from patroness Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris). Good writing; okay acting.

5. The influence of Woodcock's deceased mother (Emma Clandon) is so huge, it raises the question of why she doesn't appear more, either in flashbacks or as an apparition. Nothing she does warrants her power over the designer, but we have to take it on faith that he's totally obsessed by her memory. Maybe if there had been some darker relationship? Ah, but that's not here. Would that it were.

6. Attention to detail is such a big part of this, it almost demands a second viewing. I had to explain to a couple of ladies sitting behind me what was written on the ribbon stitched into the wedding gown of Princess Mona Braganza (Lujza Richter) and how it related to something mentioned earlier. You really need to be paying attention all the time, which is a plus if you are into nuanced films, but a negative if you are watching just for the entertainment value.

7. The film doesn't end with clarity. It suggests things may have turned out one way, but hedges with the possibility that they took a very different direction. A second viewing might clear that up a bit, but it might just reinforce PTA's desire to leave it a question. Exiting the theater, I heard some viewers voicing confusion. I have my own theory, but will leave it to others to discuss. It's certainly a good film to see once, and probably twice.

Listed among Films Nominated for Best Picture

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