Film Review: Phantom Thread

by Gordon Elgart on January 12, 2018

It looks great, sounds great, and contains great performances, and that should be enough, right?

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread

There are six words that gets the blood of every movie nerd pumping: Paul Thomas Anderson are three of them, and Daniel Day-Lewis are the other three. The other time these two worked together, they created the modern masterpiece There Will be Blood. Now they return, sans milkshakes, for what Sir Daniel Michael Blake Day-Lewis claims will be his last acting job. Whether this retirement sticks is anyone’s guess, but is it worth catching him on the screen one last time?

The quick answer is absolutely yes. The character he and P.T. Anderson have created, Reynolds Woodcock, is a fascinating blend of private obsession and public charm. He’s an artist, working as a dressmaker in 1950s London where he outfits royalty and other wealthy women in fantastic dresses, each one made especially for them. The women come to him as much for being near this respected genius as much as they do for the clothes. His designs are beautiful and classic.

He lives and works in a townhome in London where each morning he has breakfast with his sister (Lesley Manville, in my favorite performance here) and a woman who annoys him by trying to have a conversation with him while he wants only to sit quietly. Because of this, he dismisses this woman from his home. Soon he’s met Alma, played by relative newcomer Vicky Krieps, and is smitten with her. Their first date turns into a dress fitting, and soon she’s the woman at the breakfast table annoying him, but she’s not going to be dismissed so easily. 

Paul Thomas Anderson has chosen to forgo using a dedicated cinematographer, and the film hardly suffers from this. It’s clear he’s learned a lot from his usual collaborator, Robert Elswit, although one wonders what could have been with this partnership still in place. Returning, though, is Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood to do the score, and what a score he’s provided. The score is asked to do a lot of the emotional work of the movie, and while this tends toward being a dramatic crutch in parts, it’s more often a good thing than bad.

So much detail is present in every corner of the film. The scenes of creation in the dressmaker studio are fascinating, with lush fabrics lovingly spread out for Woodcock’s team to fashion these masterpieces out of the raw materials they have. The sound design stands out in these scenes, and is noticeable throughout the movie, as Reynolds has a strong aversion toward certain noises, and the way this is presented is wonderful.

So clearly this movie is incredible all around, so what’s my problem with it? I think two major things keep me from being able to wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone. One is that this is essentially the story of a misunderstood genius who falls in love with a much younger woman who loves him, but then she has to resort to conniving tactics to be able to keep him in the way she wants. Haven’t we seen that before? 

The second thing would be big giant wallop of a spoiler, so I’ll just say that I don’t think the whole thing comes together well thematically, and I left disappointed at how pointless it seemed to be. Was it, though? What this is to me is the kind of movie that is so interesting to watch in every way that you can forgive its thematic material, especially upon repeat viewings. There are moments in this film that are so singular in their execution that I’ve never seen anything like them, and all I want to do is have long talks with every other film nerd about them. 

So please see it, forgive its flaws, and we’ll discuss.

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Phantom Thread opens in the Bay Area today, and is screening for a limited run in 70mm at the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco.

 

Gordon Elgart

A music nerd who probably uses that term too much. I have a deep love for bombastic, quirky and dynamic music.

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