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'Phantom Thread' delivers powerhouse performances amid flawed characters 

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice) reteams with Daniel Day-Lewis in this story of dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, who with his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), runs the posh fashion business the House of Woodcock. Set in 1950s London, Woodcock's fastidious life is turned upside down by Alma (Vicky Krieps), a willful young woman who becomes his lover and muse. (130 min.)

click to enlarge EXACTING Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a fastidious London dress designer in the 1950s, uses his unsparing eye to examine his creation. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF ANNAPURNA PICTURES AND FOCUS FEATURES
  • Photos Courtesy Of Annapurna Pictures And Focus Features
  • EXACTING Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a fastidious London dress designer in the 1950s, uses his unsparing eye to examine his creation.

Glen All the worst human emotions are on display in Phantom Thread, a story about ego, jealousy, manipulation, hostility, and disappointment. Incongruently, it's also very funny. Reynolds is a selfish, pompous, egoist who believes his artistry excuses his fastidiousness and demanding nature. It's his way or the highway. His sister, Cyril, understands this, and enables his overbearing and often cold nature to overrun his world. He's a dressmaker to high society and to European royal families, and his work consumes him. As the film opens, we see the cruel way he dismisses his current muse, who no longer inspires his affections. It doesn't take him long for another to strike his fancy. After Alma serves him breakfast at a country inn, he quickly sweeps her into his life. She's rustic, a bit clumsy, and prone to embarrassment, but in her he sees malleable clay ready to conform to his wishes. Reynolds' perfect world begins to fray, however, as Alma finds her voice and begins to exert her own ego. Like many of Paul Thomas Anderson's stories, Phantom Thread is about big personalities with compromised morals. That can make it difficult to find anyone to root for; however, Anderson's sumptuous filmmaking, attention to detail, and unflinching gaze at his complicated characters is as gorgeous and elevated as one of Reynolds' haute couture designs.

Anna Reynolds is clearly used to having things done his way and to his exacting standards. He has no room for patience or imperfection in his world. His attraction to Alma is a bit of a puzzle because of that: She's a little too real to fit into his carefully constructed life, and his sister's unflinching devotion does nothing but stroke his ego. Every relationship in the film is unhealthy, and as you said, no one qualifies as the "good guy." When Reynolds falls ill, Alma's suspicion—that the only time he truly needs her over anyone else is when he is incapacitated—proves true. Munchausen by proxy becomes her way of punishment, either when she feels he needs to be reminded of his humanity or taught a lesson. There's also a sizeable age gap between the two, and while Alma wants to go out, go dancing, and be social, Reynolds is content at home, immersed in his work, happiest in silence. Lewis has said this is his final role before retirement, and while I hope that doesn't hold true, he chose quite a character to end with. Fastidious to a fault and incredibly strong willed, surrounded by adoration and entitlement, Reynolds is a larger-than-life man played subtly and brilliantly by Lewis.

Glen The acting truly is amazing, and Anderson gives his players the space they need to develop their characters. Nothing feels rushed, which for some viewers may translate as a slow pace, but I was never bored. Anderson is certainly one of those filmmakers critics adore because he's always delivering surprises, but some viewers tend to struggle with his films, and his Rotten Tomato scores usually reflect that. Critics have awarded Phantom Thread a 91 percent rating while viewers scored it at 73 percent. I have to admit, there's a late twist here that didn't quite ring true for me, but this film is too exquisitely made, too fascinating a character study, and too mesmerizingly well acted for me to be put off. It also fits well within the pantheon of the current women's movement, taking a swipe at '50s London patriarchy and offering two leading ladies—Krieps and Manville—who depict characters every bit as complicated and charismatic as their male counterpart. What Reynolds does to Alma is nothing short of sexual exploitation and domination, but both Alma and Cyril find ways to assert themselves, demonstrating that the softer sex doesn't necessarily mean weaker. Anderson has now been nominated for six Academy Awards, but he's never won. Maybe with this film and this year, that will change.

click to enlarge CLAY FOR MOLDING Alma (Vicky Krieps) becomes muse, lover, and foil to Reynolds Woodcock, upending his carefully controlled life. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF ANNAPURNA PICTURES AND FOCUS FEATURES
  • Photos Courtesy Of Annapurna Pictures And Focus Features
  • CLAY FOR MOLDING Alma (Vicky Krieps) becomes muse, lover, and foil to Reynolds Woodcock, upending his carefully controlled life.

Anna Sound plays a big part in the film as well. Reynolds' annoyance is very connected to the noise around him. The simple act of buttering toast is enough for him to shoot daggers at Alma over the breakfast table and throw a fit. She learns to be silent to avoid his wrath while taking her own turn at revenge. Cyril is both friend and foe, vastly overprotective of her brother and his fussiness, but also a voice of reason that he will actually listen to. Director Anderson has done a bunch of films that I love—Punch-Drunk Love, The Master, Inherent Vice. The guy has some serious skill at creating fascinating characters and ambiance. Coupled with the cast's stellar performances, Lewis' in particular, this slow-burn film had me captivated from start to finish. One great thing about a film whose principal character is a dressmaker is you know you're in for some great costuming. The pretentious and incredibly formal dresses are amazing, stuffy, and heavy, yet with beautiful lines and folds, intended to make the wearer feel beautiful, even in the face of self-doubt and loathing. Reynolds, Cyril, and Alma are all incredibly protective of his work, even demanding a dress back when its wearer got embarrassingly drunk in it. The plot twist toward the end was a bit odd but still had its place and reason in the storyline, and it just added another layer to these odd, complicated characters. Overall, it's a delicious and rich character study, with dark humor and devilish details woven throughout, and Lewis' performance should not be missed. Δ

Split Screen is written by Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.


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