Phantom Thread Review
Reynolds Woodcock’s world operates with the utmost precision and purpose. The prodigious dressmaker, portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1950s period romance Phantom Thread, spends his days in the towering house that is his home and workplace, designing masterworks of couture, overseeing their manufacture by a small group of aging seamstresses, and charming the women of wealth, nobility, and charisma who purchase and model his creations.
There is little room in Reynolds’ ordered life for anyone else, save his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), a loyal companion and business partner; she is responsible for ensuring that Reynolds’ perfect world is without interruption, concern, or confrontation. Reynolds even relies on her to dismiss lovers who have bored or irritated him, such as Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), who commits the cardinal sin of interrupting his quiet breakfast with her tearful pleas for his attention.
Evidently, the life of Reynolds Woodcock is exact, undisturbed, and entirely committed to his art – until it is interrupted by Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress he meets while dining near his country estate. She quickly occupies the role Johanna presumably filled before her, becoming Reynolds’ newest muse and object of affection. He designs dresses for her, invites her into his bed, and welcomes her into his employ; she becomes fascinated by his unwavering dedication to his craft and the strange, meticulous existence he maintains.
Unlike Johanna, however, Alma refuses to allow Reynolds to distance himself from her. She is determined, against the will of both Reynolds and Cyril, to make a place for herself in a world contingent on her acquiescence and silence. Her resilience throws the house of Woodcock into disarray, and forces Reynolds to examine the nature of the life he has so carefully crafted for himself.
Phantom Thread, Anderson’s eighth feature film, is an insular examination of love and artistry, one that (as Moonlight director Barry Jenkins noted) is discernibly connected to the director’s quieter, more intimate works, such as Punch Drunk Love and The Master. Like these earlier films, Phantom Thread is at once deeply strange and startlingly universal; the manner in which Anderson details the game of wits and idiosyncrasies that defines the strained bond between Reynolds and Alma is filled with peculiarities and extremes, yet it is consistently reflective of greater, more recognizable truths of love.
As Reynolds and Alma play their intimate game of affections, one that is simultaneously vicious and tender, earnest and deceitful, Anderson slowly paints a picture of an immutable truth of human connection: that love is both a giving and a taking, a thing that must be both fought for and freely given. Reynolds and Alma save each other from the excesses of their individual selves through the deep pains and immutable joys they bestow upon each other, and they do so in a way that is irresistible in its charm and startling in its toxicity.
The bewilderingly beautiful nature of Reynolds and Alma’s relationship is reflected in the contrast between the perfectly ordered production design and the intimate, almost invasive cinematography. The 1950s period costumes and sets are immaculate in their symmetry and aesthetic appeal, much like Reynolds’ designs themselves; the cinematography, heavy on close-ups and creeping camera moves, reflects the inner tensions and passions boiling within Reynolds and Alma. Anderson, who acted as his own cinematographer, leans heavily into this visual juxtaposition in moments of genuine conflict. The film’s score, too, accentuates the deceptions and contradictions between the two lovers, as the pianos and violins of Jonny Greenwood’s compositions drift from a quiet, eerie coldness to swells of passion.
The two lead performances from Day-Lewis and Krieps are impeccable. As Reynolds, Day-Lewis shifts seamlessly between the quiet charisma of a man of taste and stature, the ceaseless agitation of a fastidious artist, and the tenderness of a frail soul consumed by love. As Alma, Krieps is dynamic and captivating; she captures the contradictory natures of a remarkably original character with ease, delivering a performance that allows us to understand how Alma can be both cynical and earnest, selfless and selfish. Manville, too, is brilliant, presenting Cyril as both the no-nonsense custodian of a temperamental genius and the loving sister of a tortured, self-obsessed man.
Phantom Thread is a love story without naiveté or cynicism; a meditation on how lovers often hurt each other in order to heal each other. Alma enters Reynolds’ world of perfection and beauty and demands a place in it; conversely, Reynolds demands his world remain untouched, and that Alma remain little more than a muse. Neither of them get what they want, properly speaking, but they do find their own way to be happy together, despite their initial dissatisfaction. That Phantom Thread can so clearly convey this apparent contradiction is a great achievement; that it is able to do so while immersing us so fully in its uncomfortable truths is nothing short of a miracle.