As a cinephile, there is always a tremendous thrill in seeing the greatest filmmakers teaming up with the greatest actors. The former’s track record immediately prepares you for an engaging story paired with smart and purposeful visuals and aesthetics; while the presence of the latter gets you ready for a performance that couldn’t be accomplished by any other star. In the case of Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day Lewis, we’ve already seen their individual magic coalesce in the jaw-dropping There Will Be Blood — which currently stands as one of the greatest dramas of 21st century cinema. Now the two have reunited for the dark romance Phantom Thread, and while the spark is still very much there, the finished product doesn’t quite reach the heights set by expectation.
The eighth film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the new film is a deep dive into the fashion world of the 1950s, specifically focusing on the life and works of legendary designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). His fashion house based in London, Woodcock’s dresses inspire the elite from around the world to come to his door in hopes of having something made for a big event. However, equally as famous as his taste is his temperament — the concentration he needs for his work leading to the development of a short fuse and a low tolerance level for anything short of his intensely high standards.
Naturally, his personal relationships suffer, with the only people he keeps close to him being his business manager, Cyril (Lesley Manville), and memories of his deceased mother. This all changes with the arrival of Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young woman whom Reynolds meets while she is working as a waitress. He quickly becomes infatuated with her, seeing her as his muse and having her work alongside him designing new dresses, but as is the case with all romances in Reynolds’ life, his fire quickly fizzles out. The difference with Alma, though, is that she is not so quick to be dismissed by the man she loves, and takes bold action to keep him close to her.
Daniel Day-Lewis has been saying that Phantom Thread will be his last film, the actor retiring from the profession at the age of 60, and it makes for a fascinating note to go out on. The English actor has a reputation for giving no less than 100 percent in all of his roles, and playing Reynolds Woodcock he has once again successfully transformed and disappeared, though it does leave a certain bitter taste. While the role is completely different from There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview, he does still carry the same kind of unpleasant air, albeit in a different form. Reynolds exudes an intense artistic passion, which you are certainly meant to respect, but that’s counterweighted with some serious personality disorders. His kind of behavior was excused and tolerated during period in which the story takes place, but is completely gross and horrifying when observed in the climate in which the film is being released. The feelings evoked towards the character are a tribute to Day-Lewis’ power, and the feature doesn’t tell you that his actions are in any way right, but it makes for a complicated final performance from the three-time Oscar winner.
While Paul Thomas Anderson has presented an eclectic mix of tones and stories during his endlessly impressive career, Phantom Thread presents a stunning contrast of elegance and darkness, leading the filmmaker to aesthetically build something unlike anything we’ve ever seen from him. And the results are expectedly incredible. He keeps the argument of film over digital very much alive, and acting as his own cinematographer for the first time delivers scene after scene of visual splendor — bathing the detailed work of uniformed seamstresses in angelic, soft white light and offering sinister, fire lit visions of the future through its non-linear narrative. You expect beauty in a film about fashion, and Anderson practically overwhelms you with it.
In his 21 years as a director, Paul Thomas Anderson has consistently demonstrated himself as a crafty storyteller and a detail-oriented auteur, and Phantom Thread continues that streak featuring much of what we love about him as a filmmaker. It’s ultimately not his strongest or best work, but a worthy addition to his filmography, and a powerful send-off for Daniel Day-Lewis.