Phantom Thread was never going to want for pre-release hoopla, marking as it does a tenth-anniversary reunion for Daniel Day-Lewis and the quicksilver auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, who brought out the best, and the beast, in one another on There Will Be Blood. But Day-Lewis has given the new film an extra boost, by announcing that it will be his swansong. This amounts to going out on a high, even for a performer who tends not to traffic in lows.
In Reynolds Woodcock, a coiled, fastidious London dressmaker to the gentry of 1950s Europe, this notoriously detailed method actor has found a role that feels faintly autobiographical, once you get past his excellent Dirk Bogarde impression. Reynolds prepares each morning for work, and the arrival of his team of grandmotherly seamstresses, with the ritual of a performer getting into character.
He savages his mane with a pair of oval military brushes, one in each hand, until the wings of his hair curve like the wheel arches on a silver Jaguar Heritage. He snips at his nostrils and hoists his cerise silk socks up his bony shins. The merest scrape of a breakfast companion’s knife against toast can ruin his day – and theirs. The film unpicks the story of what happens when this level of control is jeopardised.
“I have an unsettled feeling,” Reynolds confides to his imperiously purse-mouthed sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), whom he calls “my old so-and-so”. She presides with him over the House of Woodcock, handling the world with tongs on his behalf. She responds to his disquiet by suggesting he zoom off to their seaside bolthole. This tiny adjustment in his schedule sets off tremors when he feasts his eyes on a sweetly bumbling waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), while breakfasting at a tea room on the coast.
Day-Lewis’s “I drink your milkshake” speech from There Will Be Blood can be heard wherever film buffs congregate to parrot their favourite dialogue, but the mimics will have their work cut out reciting his glorious order here, which includes Welsh rarebit, poached egg, scones, jam (not strawberry) and, just when you think it’s all over, sausages – after the Lapsang! When he asks Alma to dinner, she hands him her number, already scribbled down in preparation, and calls him her “hungry boy”. It’s the first sign that she has an appetite to match his – and a hint of the volatile passions to come
Audiences who resisted Anderson’s last two films, the Scientology drama The Master and the loosey-goosey comedy Inherent Vice, were able to do so largely because the focus was diffuse, the inner tension unsteady. Phantom Thread, in contrast, grips like a leather-gloved hand around the throat, though any actual violence, along with all instances of sex, is channelled into the dressmaking as the central love affair grows faintly sadomasochistic. In the most brutal scene, a garment is torn from the body of an inebriated woman who in her dissolution has forfeited the right to wear it; she’s like a slumbering sea monster being skinned alive.
It’s a hysterically pitched episode in a movie hardly lacking in febrile emotional set pieces, such as the sinister moment when Reynolds first takes Alma’s measurements, with Cyril actually sniffing her as though scenting blood, or the candlelit showdown after Alma has the temerity to cook him a romantic meal. If Phantom Thread has a problem, it is that it’s so full of fraught confrontations, even those that are outwardly genteel, that it sometimes feels more like a compilation of outstanding scenes than a great movie.
Jonny Greenwood’s velvety score turns into a panic attack in our ears as the film shifts from social horror-comedy to an erotic study cut from the same cloth as In the Realm of the Senses or David Cronenberg’s Crash. Krieps’s zesty, unguarded performance helps modulate the intensity, as does Manville, with her infinite variations on the thwarted smile. But the film’s richness is so stifling that viewers, on hearing that Reynolds takes a daily afternoon stroll, may wish they could join him for a precious gulp of fresh air.
This article appears in the 24 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power