When Daniel Day-Lewis announced a few months ago that he’d be retiring from acting after his latest collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson, the London-set costume drama Phantom Thread, it came as a surprise for a number of reasons. First, it had always seemed like though Day-Lewis enjoyed his sabbaticals between films (legendarily there was one in which he went out and became a cobbler), there always seemed to be a role waiting for him somewhere in the ether to draw him back in. Secondly, even though we’ve heard many times about how intensely Day-Lewis prepares for a shoot and works during the filming of any of his projects why a simple costume drama would push him over the edge. Surely some Herculean effort- like the one he undertook in order to give a naturalistic performance in a film like My Left Foot, where he famously kept in the role after the cameras stopped rolling, only using his left foot as an appendage- would have finally broken the man, rather than a drama that required him, in essence, to only act like himself.
Once you see Phantom Thread, it becomes a little more obvious exactly why this role upset Day-Lewis as much as it did. Anderson’s film is a devastating critique of the pampering of male genius and the cruelty that we seem to expect from our most talented artists, and it’s shockingly damning in the context of the lead’s own career. It’s also a brilliant drama, exquisitely crafted and lovingly photographed; beautifully funny and light in spite of what I told you above, and perhaps one of the best films about kink ever made without a single frame of coitus captured and nary a whip or chain in sight. It is one of 2017’s best films, officially released on Christmas Day, and I honestly wish I could go back in and place it on my list of favorites from last year.
Phantom Thread introduces us to Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a dressmaker and fashion designer in Post-War London (the year is deliberately kept hidden from us, perhaps to add to the dreamlike quality of things and to allow Anderson to pull in as many visual influences from that era as he’d like) who is blissfully successful. He works for Countesses and Princesses, all under the watchful eye of his sister Cyril (a stunning Lesley Manville), who encourages his tics and takes cares of a great deal of his daily needs. After one particularly difficult order, Woodcock retreats to his house in the country, and a day later, meets a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) whom the dressmaker is immediately smitten with. Soon enough, she becomes his muse and moves in with him at his London townhouse, where the two immediately come to loggerheads over a variety of issues, especially with regards to his sister. That’s about all I can say: I’m holding back on freaking the hell out to you about the specifics of this film’s plot until you have a chance to see it, but let’s just say the power dynamics in their relationship are tested. The movie you may think you are seeing — the dark-as-fuck romance with hints of violence at the edges- isn’t totally there, and you’ll probably be surprised at how funny it is, and how many of the lines might actually be all-timers. It contains multitudes, people.
Day-Lewis, as always, is wonderful, but not in the way that you’re perhaps expecting him to be. He’s always been a forceful screen presence, even when he’s resigned and quieter (as, say, he was in Spielberg’s Lincoln), but here he’s allowed to play a kind of character that he hasn’t in years. Woodcock spends so much of the film in his own head, hiding behind focus and concentration, that the scenes even when he explodes at Kreps or Manville feel overwhelmingly quiet compared to the other works in his oeuvre. It’s also a joy to see him smile and joke and fall in love, and to have his emotional palate filled with a different set of paints for once. He’s petty and selfish and childish and domineering, but he’s always grounded in a pathos that feels less mature or rigorously composed as, say, Daniel Plainview or others. To put it in terms that the Anderson fan might understand, he’s part Jack Horner, part Freddie Quell and part classic English actor Trevor Howard, strained through the particular intensity that Day-Lewis is celebrated for. However, and probably to your shock, he doesn’t provide the best performance in this film (it happens to everyone, I guess).
That singular honor goes to the indelible Vicki Krieps, whose work in Phantom Thread is so good you could write epic poetry about it. As Alma, she’s the key to the entire story, as both narrator and somewhat protagonist, and she’s placed by Woodcock into being something she’s most definitely not: submissive. Without her in this role, the entire film would fall apart. If her initial seduction (via Woodcock’s breakfast order) comes off as priggish or silly, the movie fails. If she slinks away from Day-Lewis at any point, the movie fails. If she doesn’t undersell her hinted-at backstory or her motivations for being in the relationship, the movie fails. She is utterly stunning, ferocious in her quiet beauty without ever resorting to cliche or to type. Much like a red wheelbarrow, so much depends on the look in her eyes as Woodcock measures her for a dress or kisses her in the street or dresses her down for cooking his asparagus the wrong way. And when her turn comes (and you’ll know what I mean when you see it) her delight is priceless. Just toss awards her way, please, she deserves every one of them.
The dressings are appropriately gorgeous — this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film, after all — and adherence to period styles and norms is paramount. Hell, the title alone is as obscure a detail as the Torpedo Juice was in The Master, and that same fidelity enhances and colors his work. There isn’t an official credit for cinematographer on the film — Anderson at one point said he’d be photographing the film himself, but later walked back that claim, saying that it was a “collaborative effort” — but it’s as esteemed and accomplished as anything he’s done prior with cinematographer Robert Elswit. That is to say that it’s a fabulously shot film, full of stark natural lighting that enhances both the chilly English countryside and the haze of smoke-filled fashion showcases, and there’s a lightness to the camera work — especially in one fabulous scene early on where we journey through Woodcock’s London residence and workhouse, seemingly floating on a mite — that is utterly entrancing.* The score, as well, by Anderson’s decade-long collaborator Jonny Greenwood gives anything you’ve heard in a cinema this year a run for its money, as it is a lush blend of classical compositions, perhaps most similar in function to the Baby Driver soundtrack, ironically enough. It gives you bits and pieces of recognizable work from master composers, but twists it about to form something utterly original. If you walk out of this film and still think that Thom Yorke is the most talented member of Radiohead, even after all of the work that Greenwood has done to prove that thesis wrong over the years, I have some penny stocks you might be interested in purchasing.
[*A quick note on presentation: If you’re local to Boston or another metropolitan area, I highly recommend you seek out a theater showing the movie on 70mm film. You’ll get sucked into the frame and the rhythms just a bit better, but it’s not as essential a viewing in the format as something like ‘Dunkirk’, where bits and pieces of the frame were chopped out to fit it on smaller screens.]
Still, the most interesting aspect of Phantom Thread to me remains its kinky sexual politics, or how it presents the dominate/submissive aspects of a relationship in a way that doesn’t totally feel troubling. Some have already accused the film of romanticizing abuse, which is odd to me, given that the whole film sort of hinges on the refutation of that idea, that two people can work through their neuroses and their own hangups and eventually settle on finding a comfortable new normal.
There’s echoes of the Freudian here amongst everything else, but never overwhelmingly, and the film seems to encourage the audience to embrace the things that make you feel good — well, comforted, I should say — above all else, regardless of its potential perception of the ceding of power. It is a tremendous amount to chew on, and outside of Call Me By Your Name, it’s the only film that I’ve walked out of seeing this past year and immediately wanted to watch again. Phantom Thread is an astonishing work from one of our true cinematic titans, and if it is to be Day-Lewis’s farewell to screen acting, it’s one hell of a metatextual way to go out. See this at your earliest convenience.
Phantom Thread arrives in area theaters January 12.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image via Focus Features.