It’s worth noting that the famously selective Daniel Day-Lewis chose PHANTOM THREAD as his announced screen valediction. As if he hasn’t proven in film after film that he can apparently do anything, his Reynolds Woodcock, a distinguished fashion designer with top-drawer clientele, may be his subtlest, quietest, most inward performance—and that’s precisely the source of its power and of the elegantly purring engine of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film set in 1950s London. Here, playing a creator and consummate craftsman whose devotion to his work defines his life, Day-Lewis proves that he can develop more character in a single frame with a facial expression, the tone of a murmured syllable, the smallest gesture—more of a character’s interior life, conflicted motivations and emotions, even of the character’s thinking—than most actors achieve in the action or dialogue of an entire scene.
Anderson’s original screenplay and direction create a context of seamless integrity for what emerges as a character study of a highly controlled and controlling artist, his shrewd sister Cyril (Lesley Manville at her best) whose sophisticated efficiency protects both Woodcock and the success of their haute couture house, and a young woman determined to be Woodcock’s life companion (Vicky Krieps, a perfectly cast Luxembourgian actor). Anderson’s designer is not based on an historical figure, but in writing the role he was influenced by his research into the lives of 1950s Anglo-American designer Charles James and the great Spanish-born Balenciaga.
PHANTOM THREAD is beautiful, and while its unhurried pace and limpid stillness are essential to its exploration of art, love, and obsession, it never lags. Along with the sumptuous visual texture are an unrelenting dramatic tension, momentary flares of unlikely humor, and a breathless sense of mystery. Anderson served the film as his own cinematographer and does so with exactitude, finesse, and a particularly astute exploitation of close-up work. Mark Tildesley’s production design has just the right soigne understatedness, the costume designs by Mark Bridges are superb, and without resorting to obvious pastiche Johnny Greenwood’s score—dominated by piano and strings—evokes the era with an interesting poignancy.
Lesley Manville’s performances have always negotiated an uncanny range of modesty and imperiousness. As Reynolds’s watchful sister Cyril her serene sang froid is spot on, managing to be at once incisive and elusively intriguing. The film has garnered six Academy Award nominations—for Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Costume Design, and Musical Score— and four BAFTA nominations for Day-Lewis, Manville, costume design and score. In an awards season that thus far seems hell-bent on recognizing the broad brushstroke and clanging cymbal, it seems unlikely that the almost balletic emotional subtleties and rich cinematic delicacies of this film will win many categories if any at all. However, potential viewers shouldn’t be misled by the setting into thinking it is a tame period piece or chichi stroll down a West End runway. Through the rare synesthesia that Anderson and his team create, the masterful performances, and the narrative’s constant unexpectedness, PHANTOM THREAD engages the intellect and all the senses. The film is, in every meaning of the word, exquisite. It is also uniquely surprising and at times fierce, powered by intelligence and undercurrents of inexorable emotion.
– Hadley Hury