Joyce Glasser reviews Phantom Thread (February 2, 2018) Cert 15, 130 min.
Whether California writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson ever surpasses his 1998 masterpiece Boogie Nights is a moot point when his filmography includes two films starring Daniel Day Lewis. Day Lewis won the Best Actor Academy Award for Anderson’s period drama There Will be Blood in 2007 and is now up for another for his portrayal of an eccentric, self-absorbed, breakfast-loving, haute-couturier in Anderson’s Phantom Thread.
An homage to Alfred Hitchcock, Du Maurier’s Rebecca and to Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Phantom Thread is a dark comedy about how a grey-haired, wealthy, bachelor and a young waitress find parity in their relationship. While there is greatness in the film and in Day Lewis’s performance, both lose their intensity and interest in the second hour.
Set the mid-1950s, the film begins with a mysterious close-up of an attractive woman speaking (in a slight accent) to an unseen interlocutor about a man named Reynolds.
Reynolds Woodcock (again, the nod to Hitchcock) is as impeccably turned out as advertising executive Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest when he heads downstairs to a mouth-watering breakfast in his elegant London townhouse. Woodcock chides a bored young woman at the table for demanding more of his time. ‘I cannot begin my day with confrontation,’ he barks at his startled guest. ‘I have a dress to deliver. I don’t have time for confrontation.’
On hand to send the girl packing is Cyril (Leslie Manville), Woodcock’s unmarried sister with whom he shares the house and management of the business. This send-off is clearly a pattern, and you might find yourself thinking of the song, ‘Good Night and Thank You’ from Evita as Woodcock’s latest model turned mistress is shown the door.
The dress in question is delivered successfully to Countess Henrietta Harding (Gina McKee), but the stress leaves Woodcock exhausted. Cyril suggests a trip to their Sussex retreat and Woodcock duly speeds off in his sports car, stopping for breakfast at a local inn straight out of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables.
Woodcock is instantly captivated by a young waitress (Vicky Krieps) who trips – but laughs at her clumsiness instead of becoming flustered. You will never be able to eat breakfast again without thinking of Woodcock as he flirts with the waitress while ordering, ‘Welsh rarebit with an egg (not too runny) on top’ bacon and ‘scones with butter and jam, not strawberry.’ Catching on, the waitress, speaking with a slight European accent, proposes raspberry as though it were pillow talk, before Woodcock adds sausages and (surprisingly for a country restaurant in 1955) Lapsang Tea to the tab. That done, he invites her to dinner.
Woodcock warns that he is a confirmed bachelor, but as the waitress hands him a note: ‘for the hungry boy’ with her details on it, you might wonder who is seducing whom. That the waitress is named Alma is no coincidence. Hitchcock’s wife and frequent collaborator was Alma Reville who notably contributed to the script of Rebecca and was more than just the woman behind the great artist.
The strange courtship is one long fitting session (Alma is tall and thin with a model’s body) which continues when Alma is moved into the townhouse. Woodcock might be Henry Higgins, but he is not interested in changing Alma’s accent. Alma learns how to manage this erratic man through trial and error, but he has a nasty streak. And, like bachelor Roger Thornhill, Woodcock is very close to his mother, although she is now a spirit. Alma makes the mistake of bringing Woodcock tea in his study as she has seen Cyril do. ‘I’m taking it out,’ she pleads at Woodcock’s disapproval. ‘Too late’ he snaps. ‘The tea is out but the interruption remains.’
As their routine and relationship develop Alma joins the circle of Woodcock’s loyal, grey-haired staff of dressmakers and eventually joins him in bed. But it becomes clear that Alma – though, or because she is alone in the world with no money – is determined not to suffer the same fate as her predecessors.
Much as this twist is at the heart of the story, it is weakened by a scene of feminine retaliation that we’ve seen before – and most recently in the remake of Don Siegel’s Southern Gothic thriller The Beguiled. There is also a touch of Hitchcock’s Suspicion, but here there is a lack of tension or suspicion.
If you don’t buy the character of Alma, particularly as played by Luxembourg actress Krieps, you might struggle to engage with the final third of the film where the steely confirmed bachelor turns romantic. For in common with Rebecca, Pygmalion and The Beguiled, there is also the sticky matter of Woodcock’s preference for women with whom he has nothing in common and who are half his age. For some, this might dampen the persuasiveness of the romantic, not to mention the feminist angle.
It is not entirely Krieps’ problem or her character’s. Anderson cannot seem to make up his mind about the fate of his obdurate, neurotic artist, resulting in an anti-climactic down surge after a major turning point in the relationship. When Woodcock becomes a masochistic agent in his own reform, he slips away from the audience.
But there is still a lot to admire in what Lewis has announced is his final film before retirement. Marvel at the costume and set design and at the lush, luxurious cinematography that complements Woodcock’s rarefied lifestyle. For his first film shot outside of the American West, Anderson, shooting on Kodak film, is his own cinematographer, relishing the British coastal scenery, the Swiss mountains, the urban architecture and every perfectly framed and lit shot.
You can watch the film trailer here: