As a final performance to end his career, Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal as Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned designer of women’s fashion, is fittingly bizarre given the range of his previous roles.
Phantom Thread is perhaps his most unorthodox film, one which could not have successfully cast any other actor in his role, for doing so would have been disastrous. Daniel Day-Lewis does not carry this film, he elevates it to a level that director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson could not have anticipated otherwise.
The most striking aspect of this film is the difficulty of pigeonholing it into a specific genre or subset of cinema. In the blink of an eye, we’ll go from a frenetic fashion show to a potentially fatal love story yet no matter where the narrative leads us, there is an overwhelming sense of normality.
This is in large part to Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance but also due to Johnny Greenwood’s enchanting orchestral score. Greenwood, the lead guitarist, and keyboardist of Radiohead who also composes scores for the films of Lynne Ramsey contributes to this fantastical feeling that emanates throughout, his score only ceasing for brief moments before returning in a rousing fashion.
The majority of the film is set in 1950’s London and surrounds Woodcock, a fashion designer who specialises in lavish formalwear and dresses for the rich and royal. Reynolds is inimitably eccentric with an accent that hints at a poorer upbringing than his current quality of life would suggest. Despite his years he has yet to find a wife and has an endless conveyor belt of models who live in his house until he tires of them and he sends them away.
Women are not his love, fashion is and he uses women as nothing more than mannequins, to be used as tools to produce his works, and nothing more. Two exceptions to this rule are his manager and sister Cyril, formidably played by Lesley Manville, and his mother, who appears to be the only woman he has ever loved.
That is until he meets Alma. After his previous live-in model outstays her welcome, Reynolds takes a trip to the country to unwind as she and all her belongings are purged from the house. There, whilst ordering a mammoth breakfast, he falls for the waitress taking his order.
Perhaps another hint towards his poorer upbringing is his disregard for the class differences between the two, her lowly position at the hotel does nothing to dissuade him from flirting with her. And so, before they could share as much as a ‘how do you do’, she moves in with him, the latest of his muses.
The scenes immediately following this are the best of the film. Amongst them is a stunning sequence in which Alma has here measurements taken by Reynolds. “You have no breasts,” he tells her, as his sister writes down the measurements sat in the corner, “it’s my job to give you some if I care to.” The swirling score, razor-sharp dialogue, and superb framing are mixed in just the right way to guide the film and the audience into a next chapter.
However, it is this next chapter where viewers may find themselves left behind or unwilling to follow where Anderson is taking us. The plot descends into a patient-nurse relationship where Alma purposefully poisons Reynolds to allow him to become helpless and open up. Again, if this was any actor other than Daniel Day-Lewis, the benefit of the doubt would not be given but when the climax of the film takes several more unpalatable twists, my patience had run out.
What began as a potential masterpiece ended with a level of masochism last seen in Lynch’s Blue Velvet. There was another, better, film here, and it’s a shame that Daniel Day-Lewis should finish his career with a whimper.