A String of Genius: Our Review of ‘Phantom Thread’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - January 04, 2018
A String of Genius: Our Review of ‘Phantom Thread’

That seductive nature of style is just so insidious that you can lose yourself in it.

This Friday marks the return of cinematic auteur Paul Thomas Anderson to the screen with his latest oeuvre; Phantom Thread.  While it bucks some of the style of some of his previous efforts, it still has his trademark flair as it bathes in the lush colours of emotion and plays inside the very nature of love and obsession with some fantastic results.  It’s one of the best films that he’s ever made, and quite simply that’s saying something.

Its post-war London with the glamour and high society of the 1950’s in full swing.  At the centre of it all are renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who are ruling over British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutantes and dames with the distinct style of The House of Woodcock. Women come and go through Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young, strong-willed woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes a fixture in his life as his muse and lover. Once controlled and planned, he finds his carefully tailored life disrupted by love.

Nobody ever plans to fall in love, it just kind of happens…and you never know what the hell it is going to look like.  With Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted lush and sumptuous love affair and married it into a ‘pas de deux’ with some simplistic yet stunningly beautiful photography that he shot himself getting behind the camera to tackle yet another job on his projects as cinematographer.  It’s his most hands on, and probably most accomplished production to date.

He goes against type on this one if only because he allows moments to play out in this narrative with such insidious subtlety that you just can’t help but let it seep under your skin.  He uses the frame in such quiet certainty as there isn’t a colour, shadow or face out of place.  Much like the characters in the story it is a quest for that eternal sense of beauty and more importantly perfection and there is just no waste.  He uses the cramped cars, the tiny cottages and the snug fitting rooms all to create an ambience, not only one where love and passion can bloom but also fester and infect at the same time.

It’s a film where mood is just as importance as emotion as these characters in the high life of London are truly in a life or death duel, to make sure that they all stay as important as people think they are.  Filled with strong-willed characters that just aren’t one dimensional with a singular goal or journey in mind, they are complicated, insecure and messy real people that are holding on to the silliness of social status that they feed off of, even though they know it’s absurd. 

It’s not really a story of romance, but of the combative nature and dynamic of partnering with another person on this planet.  We require it emotionally on one end, but cannot stand the personal quirks of it all on the other end of the spectrum.  PTA hasn’t made a Hollywood romance here, he’s made a real one because even through there are many things about the other that our two leads can’t stand about each other, they also can’t live without each other and even try to make sure of it.

The only thing better then retiring from the world of action after an Oscar win would be to come back out of retirement and actually win another one, it would be a delicious piece of pop culture happenings without any doubt.   Thanks to PTA; Daniel Day Lewis may be on the verge of doing exactly that.  He takes the role of Reynolds Woodcock and gives it not only a creatively likability but marries it to a petulant nature that is seen in genius to make a man who is uniquely fascinating to watch on screen.

You don’t always like him, but you feel for him, even as he is being a pain in the ass and leaning on the nature of being a high society muse and inspiration to those around him.  In a world without TV or Twitter; he is the unquestioned flavour and tastemaker in a world that hangs on him, and when he gets a glimpse of the fact that he’s isn’t all that, his world trembles with a violent sense of insecurity that is common in great creative genius.  It’s a masterful performance as we see genuine fragility in those artistic souls that we place upon a pedestal on high.

Matching him turn for turn is Vicky Krieps in a star making turn as the woman who has finally gotten his number in Alma.  Sure there’s a certain insecurity there that has to be on display but she also doesn’t put up with any shit either.  She’s a firebrand who finds her footings while be used as inspiration for this creative demi-god that high society London just can’t get enough of.

Together they find such a unique and compelling dynamic as a pair who get annoyed by each others idiosyncrasies but know that they can’t do without the other to the point of them inflicting psychological (and even physical harm) on one another.  They simply NEED each other, and it’s something that Reynolds has never been used to and something that Alma has quickly grown accustomed to.

Rounding out the piece is in the incomparable Lesley Manville as caretaker to the moody genius of Reynolds.  She tows the line and plays it pretty straight until she sees the influence that Alma puts on the house.  While she does distain change, it also provides are an opportunity to set the record straight with the likes of Reynolds.  She has run the house and the business for years while he has simply made dresses and looked for inspiration in wine and various other women and it’s time to balance out the ship.  While they have both emotionally disposed of Reynolds’ dalliances in the past, they can’t with Alma as it marks a shift in the relationship for them all.

It’s a story that speaks to male vanity and the fragility of genius…two things that still need to be torn down here in the modern age.  Phantom Thread plays so damn effectively for our day and age yet it works so well in its setting.  If there’s such a thing as a timely period piece, I’d say this is it and only could have been done in this fashion by Paul Thomas Anderson himself.  Had anyone else tried, it wouldn’t have been nearly as smart or even half as devilishly entertaining.

This post was written by
David Voigt, has been a lover of cinema all his life and an actual underpaid critic for a solid 5 years covering everything that the city of Toronto has to offer. He was a content manager in video distribution industry before that and his love of all things cinema goes back to his first moments in awe looking up at the big screen. His 12 years of experience on the home entertainment side of the business have provided him with a unique view on what is worth spending your hard earned entertainment dollars on. Combine that with his unquestioned love of film, David should be your only stop to find out about the best in film, not only in Toronto, but worldwide.