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Review: Phantom Thread

January 29, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The latest from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread is said to have been inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 classic Rebecca, and it does indeed have the feel of an old romantic drama from the 1940s or ’50s, albeit with a twisted side to it that is fascinating to unravel while watching the film.

The film takes place in London in the 1950s, and follows Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a celebrated dressmaker at the esteemed House of Woodcock, which he runs with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville).  When Reynolds finds a new muse in the form of a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), she moves in with him, and the two form a unique relationship that goes far beyond a typical romantic affair.

Reteaming with Paul Thomas Anderson a decade after his Oscar-winning performance in There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis delivers another mesmerizing to watch performance in Phantom Thread.  Employing his usual method acting techniques, the actor actually learned the art of dressmaking, and even made a dress from scratch in preparation for the role.  This dedication is felt in every frame of his brilliant performance, and Vicky Krieps is every bit his match.  The actress delivers a stunning breakout role, masterfully portraying a character who keeps her true intentions hidden for much of the film.

The film is entrancing to watch, enveloping us in a hypnotic and often haunting atmosphere.  There are long scenes of Reynolds fitting dresses on his models, with sewing pins carefully held in the corner of his mouth, and there is a flow to these sequences and the meticulousness of his work that puts us under a sort of spell.  It’s beautifully shot, with Paul Thomas Anderson serving as his own cinematographer for the first time in his career.  Jonny Greenwood’s music is sublime, further engulfing us in the evocative mood of the film by providing lovely piano accompaniment to many of the scenes.

I suppose that Phantom Thread could, in the broadest of terms, be labelled as a romance, but it is in fact something much chillier and infinitely more complex than that, in ways that I wouldn’t think of spoiling here.  What I will say is that the central relationship is built more on power and control than it is true love.  The romantic partners are locked in a battle of wills, jostling to hold the power and to dominate the other, not necessarily in a sexual way, but rather to shift the imbalances between them and to constantly reshape who relies on whom.

It’s a fascinating dance, if you will, and Phantom Thread does a phenomenal job of keeping us on edge, never entirely sure who has the upper hand, and leaving us questioning the end goal of this little game that Reynolds and Alma seem to be playing.  The film could be seen as a metaphor of an obsessive artist who uses women for inspiration, which in a sense is coming back to haunt him.  Reynolds is an artist who can’t exist without his muse, but also has no control over this muse taking on a life of her own and even overtaking him, like the constant struggle of an artist who still wants to exact control over his work even after it has been released into the world.

What Phantom Thread presents is a tantalizing duet between romantic partners who are more competing for power than they are looking for love, painting a portrait that mesmerizes us with its exceptional mix of performances, cinematography and music.  I found it gripping to watch.  Daniel Day-Lewis has said that he is retiring from acting and that this will be his last role, which will be a huge loss for the industry, but at least he is going out on the highest of notes.

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