There's nothing overtly amusing about Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in Phantom Thread. As '50s-era London dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, he's tenacious in his attitude but delicate in his approach, inhabiting the demanding, obsessive and fastidious figure to absolute perfection. And yet, there's a joke behind his character that says much about this meticulous, mesmerising melodrama. In trying to find a name for the protagonist in their second big screen collaboration, Day-Lewis and There Will Be Blood writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson were simply trying to make each other chuckle. Mission: accomplished.
Similarly, Phantom Thread isn't a film that drips with laugh-out-loud humour, but the comic origins of Woodcock's moniker — and their contrast with the movie's tense and refined air — really couldn't be more appropriate. Far removed from his last wander through the ups and downs of romance in Punch-Drunk Love, here Anderson plunges into the depths of a dark, difficult and devious love story. That said, given the story concerns a volatile couple who turn power plays and tussles for control into an intense form of foreplay, it's only fitting that he imbues proceedings with a sly, mischievous streak.
When Woodcock first encounters Alma (Vicky Krieps) in a countryside restaurant, it seems a simple case of sophisticated man meets shy young woman; of opposites attracting in familiar circumstances. While he usually only has room in his life for his work, his no-nonsense sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and his dead but never forgotten mother, Woodcock is drawn to the clumsy waitress, as she is to him. But it soon becomes clear that his designs on their relationship aren't the same as hers. Though he's fond of having a live-in muse, dress model and sometime lover, despite appearances she's not the type to meekly bend to his moody whims. With Cyril ever-present, the House of Woodcock soon starts to unravel — something that'd never happen to one of the high-end frocks his ceaselessly fusses over, obviously.
Every textile metaphor you can think of applies to Phantom Thread. It's a film that's carefully woven from the fabric of human urges, teeming with hidden layers and positively bursting at the seams with emotional detail. It's also one made by the finest possible craftspeople, with Anderson and his three stars fashioning the cinematic equivalent of haute couture. In a role he says will be his last, three-time Oscar-winner Day-Lewis shows just why that's such utterly devastating news for audiences and the acting profession alike. Matching him immaculately are Krieps and Manville. Think of the former as the intricate beading that attracts the eye on an already breathtaking gown, and the latter as the painstaking stitching attentively holding everything together.
As for Anderson, the filmmaker behind Boogie Nights, Magnolia and The Master sews another unique patch into his filmography. Making a movie about a perfectionist dressmaker, he's as exacting as Reynolds — and possesses the same eye for exquisite beauty in a film he shot on 35mm himself. Marvel at the way he infuses the household's breakfast routine with palpable tension over something as routine as buttering toast, and try to tear your gaze away from his stunningly framed images and the exceptional frocks within them. Even the ornate wallpaper manages to captivate. Anderson again finds his musical match in Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, who provides the equally effective, darkly seductive score. Sensuous, evocative and completely entrancing, if the end result was a garment, you wouldn't want to take it off.