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Phantom Thread film review: a dreary expression of ostentation

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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.

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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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17 responses to “Phantom Thread film review: a dreary expression of ostentation

  1. I love this review. I saw Phantom Thread on a 12 hour flight from LA to Australia. The film lasted longer than the flight. Oh, was it a slow drip. I’ve eaten toast all my life and it has never sounded like that. I must start buttering it with a microphone. I’m Not surprised the film has so many Oscar nominations. It is boring and incomprehensibly pretentious enough to perhaps sweep the Academy Awards. Unfortunately for the producer actors and director, it lacks a certain crudeness that the Academy voters go for. If they could dub in lots of F-bombs, it would be a shu-in.

  2. This review sums up how I felt. The craft on display is very good; the acting is first rate, and the production design, cinematography, all of that, is really great to look at. But there’s not much to it, story wise. A vain, self-indulgent genius/jerk treats everyone around him like garbage, then meets a woman, and has a tiny sort of awakening (after whinging about every single thing that annoys him, at mind boggling length). I love PTA, but this was pretty dull.

  3. I find Luke Buckmaster’s reviews to be dreary. Rarely does anything stack up as he pretentiously looks down upon everything from his dizzy intellectual heights. Personally I think the film was amazing, primarily because of the characterization. Daniel Day-Lewis’s ability to transform himself is entertaining in and of itself and the interaction between the two key characters, Woodcock and Alma, was captivating. In this sense the film was voyeuristic and therefore of necessity at times a little slow, as is real life. All in all I found it to be very enjoyable and as transporting as any special effects might be. In fact is was a pleasant contrast to today’s over-reliance on special effects as entertainment.

  4. A film made to satisfy its writer/director’s indulgence. And how come Woodcock got so sick on a thimble of crook mushroom shavings but survived an omelette full of the whole plant?

  5. The arrogance of the movie extends to the director’s cavalier approach to entertaining his audience. Was he seduced by Day-Lewis’ status as an entertainment deity, banking on D-L’s reputation and well-publicized retirement at the expense of crafting a good story with at least one sympathetic character? (Even Lesley Manville’s spot-on but two-dimensional Cyril wore monotonously thin .) About halfway through the film I found myself no longer caring what happened to any of the characters, and pondered killing them off in a most violent manner. I don’t care how pretty the photography is, a bunch of people acting weird in slow motion does not a movie make.

    PS: Jenny, the frocks were too few and far between to provide entertainment.

    1. Thanks Manalto. An answer to the most important question. I’ll stick to the designer docos and go back in time with the House of Elliot.

  6. I would not recommend this film to anyone. I am baffled why D D Lewis chose to tackle this lifeless, loveless character as his farewell part. Let alone the thin story. Prick through it, and what is left? A pretty dress? Not enough for Oscars.

  7. I didn’t find it dreary. At times I found it beautiful and moving, and I thought both the lead performances were compelling. But I did feel it lost its mojo about three-thirds of the way through, not just in terms of pace but also in knowing (or at least sharing) what it wanted to say. It’s ok for meaning to be elusive or deeply buried, but this film seemed to hover between the real and surreal in a way that was at times more alienating than intriguing. My take on the plot is: at the outset, Alma is more muse than girlfriend (Reynolds does not appear to have much of a sex drive; and implies that she is his perfect canvas more than anything – “I’ll give you breasts. If I choose to”) until she resorts to extreme acts to for force him to really *see* her. Are we meant to read it as a ‘love’ story; the tale of a monster who’s met his match; a comment on the nature of art; or something much more psychoanalytic… I don’t know. I’m still trying to work that out. At least it was thought-provoking.

  8. I pretty much agree with Luke here. I appreciated the movie for it’s fine acting and beautiful visual qualities but it was a dreary affair which left me with a bad taste in my mouth .

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