Film Review: Day-Lewis bows out on a real high with Phantom Thread

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Phantom Thread marks the final performance of Daniel Day-Lewis and what a way to go out, writes Natalie Stendall.

Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, a demanding mid-century fashion designer and one of the most complex and intricate characters yet written by Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master, Magnolia).

In keeping with the writer-director’s celebrated body of work, Phantom Thread is a slow-burn, understated drama whose brilliance gently creeps up on you.

It is, essentially, a character study of Woodcock and his battle of wills with sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville) and muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps), in the creation of his art. The fictional House Of Woodcock is brilliantly realised by costume designer Mark Bridges (The Artist) whose designs ooze as much story as glamour.

Reynolds is immediately drawn to Alma, a timid and self-conscious waitress. But this is Paul Thomas Anderson and it is no straightforward romance. Reynolds takes Alma for a dress fitting, voyeuristically observed by Cyril. It’s a gorgeous, seductive and affectionate scene with a troubling undercurrent that reduces Alma to simple measurements.

Reynolds is an indisputable control freak. He values strength and does an excellent job of masking his vulnerability. Alma’s ability to draw this out creates friction and some remarkable verbal sparring. Particular, exacting and self-absorbed, Reynolds is a delicious character who is both intensely unlikable and yet manages to possess a whisper of sympathy. Day-Lewis is subtle and sometimes darkly comic. His voice, both soft and sharp, woos and startles.

But there’s more to Phantom Thread than a portrait of one man and his art. The film’s intimate relationships are fascinating and Paul Thomas Anderson’s careful direction gives his actors space to react and evolve. A smatter of improvised dialogue adds to the films naturalism and honesty. The chemistry is exquisite.

Phantom Thread is nominated for six Oscars including those in the lead actor, picture and direction categories, but it’s hard to see why this isn’t seven. Vicky Krieps is utterly beguiling as Alma exuding both naivety and spirit. Less accomplished at choosing her battles than Cyril, Alma refuses to be subjugated by Reynolds. Her belief in his hidden fragility is reminiscent of Rebecca and Jane Eyre.

Paul Thomas Anderson skilfully nests romance in human complexity. And, in spite of its mid-century setting Phantom Thread feels remarkably relevant. Reynolds’ work-life balance is seriously out of kilter and his patriarchy difficult to witness.

By unpicking and unravelling his character, Phantom Thread connects love with vulnerability. It’s an unorthodox and masterly produced romantic drama.