Daniel Day-Lewis has never seemed particularly enamoured with acting as a career and has certainly never shown any interest in the trappings that come with the level of success he has achieved as a performer. With three Academy Awards and a slew of other accolades across a career spanning 30+ years, Day-Lewis is indisputably one of the finest actors of his generation and if, as he has declared, Phantom Thread is his last acting role, he leaves the industry having delivered some of the most iconic characters in contemporary cinema, from real-life figures such as cerebral palsy-afflicted artist Christy Bown (My Left Foot) and falsely imprisoned IRA suspect Gerry Conlon, to characters based on historical figures such as Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting in Gangs of New York or completely fictional constructs such as Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence or Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, which was Day-Lewis’ first collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson. Day-Lewis has never shied away from playing unlikeable characters and with Phantom Thread, he teams again with Anderson to bring us Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer whose considerable talents are only outweighed by his arrogance and lack of consideration for others.
Set in the couture world of 1950’s London, Woodcock is a self-absorbed, yet revered, designer and dress maker whose genius allows him to get away with being an asshole, protected from all manner of inconvenience and irritation by his sister/assistant Cyril (Lesley Manville), who panders to his petty demands and peculiarities. Unless you regard his talent as such, there are no redeeming features in Woodcock, which does make it difficult to understand why unassuming waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) finds herself unable to extract herself from his orbit when it becomes evident what a contemptible personality he possesses. Of course, initially he is all charm and charisma in his efforts to woo Alma, but it isn’t long before his narcissism and numerous neuroses take control of their relationship. As Alma begins to challenge his oppressively structured way of living, Reynolds responds by growing more controlling towards her and behaving in a manner that suggests he is ready to find a new muse, forcing Alma to take action in a bid to protect her place within his world which, quite frankly, seems the lesser of two evils if the other option is getting the hell out of the relationship altogether.
Anderson, who also wrote the screenplay, makes no attempt to give Reynolds a redemptive narrative arc and his worst character traits are tempered only by Alma’s manipulations, rather than as a result of any conscious effort on his part to be a better human being. Day-Lewis makes easy work of his character and with Krieps more than a match for her acclaimed co-star, it surely won’t be long before Hollywood comes calling for the 34-year-old from Luxembourg. Having built a reputation as an auteur of the highest order, Anderson also served as cinematographer on Phantom Thread and drew on a variety of techniques and lens technologies to create a look for the film that better reflects the way it might look if filmed at the time in which the story is set. Anderson wanted to ‘dirty up’ the image to avoid having the finished product present as something altogether too pristine, an approach that, when combined with the period detailing and the way some scenes are shot – such as the driving sequences – makes for an aesthetically authentic experience.
A master at exposing the hidden impulses of human behaviour, Anderson has eight feature films under his belt and is yet to make a dud and, while Phantom Thread is not his most astounding piece of work (that honour would probably go to Magnolia or maybe Boogie Nights or perhaps The Master…), it still stands tall above so much of the schlock that somehow finds its way onto cinema screens. The film explores ideas about how memory and emotion control behaviour, as well as the dynamic between artist and muse, combining elements of gothic romance with a psychological thriller whilst taking a satirical swipe at male artists and their toxic behaviour. Narratively, this is perhaps Anderson’s most straightforward film thus far, relying very much on the performances from the two leads to keep the audience engaged and, if this does ultimately prove to be Day-Lewis’ swansong, it certainly does nothing to diminish his legacy as one of the most gifted performers ever to grace a cinema screen.