Published Dec 22, 2017Throughout the years, Daniel Day-Lewis has undergone some extreme transformations to portray some of the most interesting characters in modern filmmaking: an ex-president (Lincoln), a fastidious Italophile (A Room With a View), a ruthless oilman (There Will Be Blood) and an artist persevering through cerebral palsy (My Left Foot), to name just a few. Ultimately, though, it was the drain of shooting of Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread that caused the renowned actor to announce his retirement from acting entirely.
This fact could potentially serve as a considerable draw for the film, attracting those curious to take in the cinematic straw that broke the camel's back. Phantom Thread's plot sounds sumptuous enough, the tale of a master fashion designer who is tortured by love and the creative process in 1950s London. It's an unfortunate surprise, though, when both the film and Day-Lewis's performance reach only mediocre heights.
Day-Lewis's character Reynolds Woodcock (egad) is an old guard of the British fashion industry, ushering aristocrats into his hallowed chambers to outfit them in bespoke gowns. His sister Cyril acts as an Olivia Pope-type figure for him; she 'handles' whatever complications land in her brother's lap, both figuratively and literally — until he meets his new muse, the captivating and clumsy waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps). The role of Cyril could feel one-note if it were not in the hands of Lesley Manville, who possesses something of Helen Mirren's flinty magnetism in the way she just barely raises an eyebrow. She and Krieps are simply wonderful in their scenes together.
The core of Phantom Thread is the power play between Cyril, Reynolds and Alma, and whether a mere mortal like Alma (who is talented and complex in her own right) will fade in the shadow of her lover's genius. This struggle may have held interest if there was some alteration of gender roles or age — but no. Thread is about an older narcissistic man placing a young innocent woman on a pedestal, then carelessly knocking her aside. Boring old business as usual. It's only in the final act that Alma asserts her power and the film finally takes off in more interesting, giddily perverse directions.
In his eighth film, Anderson's directorial style is old-fashioned, measured and attentive, appropriately mirroring a tailor's approach. He wisely lets the camera linger upon rows of seamstresses while they diligently complete the legwork of Woodcock's creations, heads bent and voices low. Phantom Thread is visually rich, but when it ventures beneath surficial levels, there's little substance to be found. Unfortunately, it's with a whimper, not a bang, that Daniel Day-Lewis takes his bow.