The last time writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis teamed up, for There Will Be Blood, the result was a mysterious epic set during American’s oil boom at the turn of the last century, dominated by Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning portrayal of a psychotically single-minded oilman. Their new collaboration has a much different canvas, but includes another mesmerising study in megalomania.
Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a successful fashion designer in 1950s London, a king of haute couture, who makes impossibly beautiful clothes for impossibly wealthy women, including countesses and princesses who fawn at his feet.
Home and office are in a splendid townhouse, where a team of seamstresses bring Reynolds’ creations to life and his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville) runs the business with stiff-backed authority. She also tidies up her brother’s romantic messes, which clearly conform to a pattern of brief, live-in affairs, followed by his boredom and soul-destroying froideur. “What to do you want to do about Johanna?” asks Cyril of the latest victim, over breakfast. “I mean she’s lovely, but the time has come.”
With Johanna gone and his latest dress unveiled, Reynolds drives into the country for some R&R and immediately falls for a waitress, the much younger Alma (Vicky Krieps). Initial flirtation between the seemingly mismatched pair takes place as he orders a quite enormous breakfast; for their first date, he gives her a fitting, with Cyril on hand to take the measurements. Despite how it sounds, these scenes are intoxicatingly romantic.
And so Alma moves in, as model and lover. We learn almost nothing about her, though there is a fleeting intimation that she may be a Jewish refugee from the war. She’s at turns plain and beautiful, demure and self-assured. “Whatever you do, do it carefully,” she says at the outset, and it’s unclear whether this is a request or a warning; could it be that a man used to getting his own way has finally met his match?
While recreating the milieu perfectly, Anderson then dresses his strange, increasingly dark romance as Gothic melodrama. In fact, Hitchcock’s Rebecca quickly comes to mind, with omnipresent Cyril a marvellous substitute for the bitter housekeeper Mrs Danvers. And just as Hitchcock accompanied danger with comedy, so there’s a wicked sense of fun here, courtesy of Reynolds’ appalling fastidiousness – typically in the mornings, when just buttering toast makes him snap that, “There’s entirely too much movement at breakfast.”
As always, Day-Lewis dons his character like a custom-made suit. Reynolds is, naturally, meticulously dressed (right down to his pink socks), his flowing grey hair brushed to a leonine dash, his manner tailored to whomever is in his presence – precious and doting for clients, alternately fond and monstrous to lovers, downright rude to doctors. The voice is so reedy that one imagines he was breastfed for too many years; indeed, he still sews his late mother’s hair into the lining of his jackets.
The actor manages to make him both impossibly affected and charismatic. It’s a delicious, finely calibrated performance, which was necessary to make us keep faith with such a difficult character in such a rarefied world. Both Krieps and Manville are excellent foils, especially the former, who shoulders the film’s ambiguities and twists.
With fabulous costume and production design, and a beautiful, subtle score by Anderson’s regular composer Jonny Greenwood, the result is quite exquisite and – like every Anderson film, from Boogie Nights to Inherent Vice – inimitable. Certainly, Phantom Thread’s discourse on the give and take of relationships contains nothing that you should practice at home.
This review first appeared in The Sunday Herald