Phantom Thread will reportedly feature the final film performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. Some wags have quipped, however, that this is just another example of the three-time Oscar-winner’s famous method approach: for his next role, you see, he will play a retired actor.
It was a safe decision for Day-Lewis to entrust his swansong (if indeed it is that) to auteur Paul Thomas Anderson. The writer/director has found many interesting vantage points from which to explore foundations and spoils of capitalism, typically in the context of stories about people who pursue or squander second chances – from oil tycoons (There Will Be Blood) to porn stars (Boogie Nights) and coupon-obsessed business owners (Punch-Drunk Love).
In Phantom Thread, Anderson absconds overseas to London circa the 1950s, into the fancy home of snooty dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis). In a sense Woodcock and Anderson are kindred spirits. Both emit an arrogance justified by their craftsmanship; both prefer quietude over glibness; both express emotions reluctantly.
The Academy have taken the bait, awarding the film six Oscar nominations including best picture, best direction and best lead actor.
Anderson’s new film, his eighth feature, is his first major misfire. Phantom Thread is a high-flown drama directed chillingly and pretentiously, with a self-important style that prioritises debonair aesthetic while the subtext of the script (written by Anderson) moves in the opposite direction – telling us that fancy accouterments cannot hide deeper issues of character and substance. The Academy have taken the bait, awarding the film six Oscar nominations including best picture, best direction and best lead actor.
The core of Phantom Thread, other than light-filled rooms and consumption of poached eggs, is a romantic relationship between two people whose standoffishness informs its stony energy. On their first date, Woodcock tells Alma (Vicky Krieps) that as a boy he used to hide messages in the lining of his garments. To me, this felt like another way of saying ‘I may very well be a psychopath’, but Alma is intrigued.
It is unclear who is courting who, or the extent to which real love or passion is involved. Lesley Manville (nominated for best supporting actress) plays Woodcock’s icy sister, whose influence on the genius’ life is gradually explored. The emphasis is on “gradually” (this is a slow film) and less so on “explored”. Woodcock is an outwardly confident but an internally insecure eccentric (that old chestnut) who misses his mother and is nostalgic about his childhood.
Anderson’s efforts are boosted by a fine performance from Day-Lewis, an expert at keeping calm then exploding on command. Co-star Vicky Krieps counters Day-Lewis the same way Alma counters Woodcock: in a vacant manner, mostly as a blank canvas onto which his (rather than her) feelings are projected. As the director himself puts it, “she gives good stare.”
Phantom Thread is a dreary expression of ostentation, superficiality palmed off for depth and embroidery for insight.
Woodcock is not supposed to be likeable (though the Freudian mummy issues and hints of a Rosebud-like complex make him relatable), but he is certainly supposed to be complex. The quarrels he has, about silence around the breakfast table and the like, are intended to highlight deeper issues, allowing the slow stripping of his emotional armour. As much as one might like to think a spat about buttered versus salted asparagus illuminates the protagonist’s inner condition, the quarrels are gruelling and the dialogue stiff.
To his credit, Anderson does not suggest the protagonist’s dubious behaviour is acceptable because he gives good dress. But nor does the director’s insular approach do much to connect with meatier themes, as he has done so well in the past. With commerce and the church, for example, in the magnificent There Will Be Blood, played out in the context of the birth of the industrial age, in a story about anti-mythologising, self-made men. Where did all that great thinking go?
Some might suppose that criticising Phantom Thread for looking vain, and its characters for being vain, and its scenes for being executed in vain ways, misses the point by ‘not getting it’. As if this constitutes some kind of clever, circular self-reflection. Or, as if there is some hidden meaning, like the messages Woodcock secreted into his garments.
That’s a long bow. Phantom Thread is a dreary expression of ostentation, superficiality palmed off for depth and embroidery for insight. Most of all it feels like a case of emphasis that’s been put in the wrong place; an uninspiring painting with a brilliant frame.
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