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Phantom Thread Review

An ominous and enticing title, which unsurprisingly ignited the imaginations of Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis fans alike after its reveal a mere few months before the movie’s release. When watching the 1950s set film, you finally realise the true excellence of the wording as it both stuns in its awe-inspiring appropriateness, yet remains blissfully undefinable as to why it works so exquisitely.

One meaning of the title, amongst a cacophony of others, most outwardly points to Reynolds Woodcock’s relationship with his deceased mother. From the get-go it is clear, almost to a point of ridicule, that the off-screen passing of Woodcock’s mother has had an inexorable effect on the eloquent London-based dressmaker – a trade he suitably perfected under her guidance. Almost all (and there are a lot) of Woodcock’s bad decisions or irrational impulses can be attributed to his maternal yearnings. The effect of her absence haunts him. It has been irreversibly stitched into the fabric of his character, a point made eerily – and somewhat endearingly – physical by the designer’s decision to sew his mother’s hair into the luxurious material of his blazer.

In the embryonic stages of their relationship, Woodcock explains to Alma (the phenomenal Vicky Krieps), that he finds comfort in the thought that the dead are watching over the living. However, his belief in whether this ideal exists is a great source of angst for him, as the thought of his mother no longer being there, even spiritually, is at the centre of his obnoxious and standoffish personality. This torment manifests itself vehemently in his relationship with Alma, whereby all she wants to do is look after him, and he can’t bear the thought of being dependent after the trauma of his mother’s death closed him off to the world.

The conflicting dynamic between the two counterparts is conveyed masterfully by Paul Thomas Anderson. It is the driving force of the narrative and is achieved with such nuance: whether it’s a prolonged glare at Alma spreading butter too clumsily, or pouring tea too extravagantly. Reynolds is overwhelmingly fastidious in his work, an obsession presumably formed out of a desire to please his mother. Woodcock’s exceptional dedication to prestigious women’s clothing makes Alma jealous of her lover’s involvement with flocks of beautiful women. Especially with the dressmakers gentle and intensely intimate method, and the fact all his business occurs in her new home: the luxurious House of Woodcock. Such intricacies are made sumptuous by Anderson’s ubiquitous supply of close ups involving tape measures, fingers, and of course thread.

Despite her fresh-faced and innocent appearance, Alma soon comes to the opinion that in order for Woodcock to express his very real love, he must become more dependent on her. In turn, she must become more hardened to his charm, alike to Reynolds’ sister Cyril (the excellent Lesley Manville). This decision starts with asserting herself in the face of Woodcock’s clients: simply exclaiming “I live here” as an attempt to display dominance, but not wholeheartedly enough to announce the manner of her relationship with Reynolds, mostly because he makes it so deliberately ambiguous. Alma’s decision-making becomes more impatient and extreme as she eventually decides physical incapacitation will be the only way to ensure Reynolds welcomes her care, in order for their unique relationship to flourish.

Anderson excels in creating characters who are geniuses in what they do, but flawed in the most extraordinary ways. Woodcock has toddler-like tantrums, whether it’s an impassioned dismantling of the word chic, or sarcastically suggesting Alma is a spy sent to ruin his evening when she wrongly cooks asparagus. Such pomposity should make a character completely unlikable, but his glaring desire for a maternal presence is felt by the audience, and Alma alike. This need is made clear in the film’s most abstract scene where Daniel Day-Lewis’ phenomenal talent flourishes and the psyche of his character is beautifully revealed.

The entire spectacle, like Woodcock’s breakfasts, is deservedly self-indulgent. The ensemble is sensational and at times it feels as if the director is stepping back and simply admiring the work of incredible actors. There are several elongated shots that linger on Day-Lewis, Manville and Krieps seemingly in awe of their talent, and ability to communicate even the subtlest of expressions. The staring contests between the leads are so expertly executed, you have to admire just how well this film has been put together to create, what feels like, effortless perfection. It is so rich in detail and incredibly composed by Jonny Greenwood, that the entire experience feels like a symphony.

This is such a fitting tribute to the career of the now retired leading man and serves as a reminder of the true beauty of cinema. It shows how so much can be conveyed on screen, not with expensive CGI or heaps of dialogue, but by a simple look. Especially when that look is from the ever-masterful Daniel Day-Lewis.

Words By Tom Williams