Phantom Thread review: A riveting romance with gothic undertones

  • Phantom Thread (2018)

Bringing us a love story with a darker tinge, Paul Thomas Anderson teams up with an excellent trio of actors to deliver a sharp, alluring film about desire and manipulation.

phantom thread review

The House of Woodcock dresses the most prominent characters in England and beyond: even royalty turns to him when they need garments for the most important days of their lives. Reynolds Woodcock is renowned for his eye and sense of style; many women would love to die in clothes he designed. And they flock to him, hoping he’ll fall in love with him after they become his inspirations, but they’re quickly replaced by a new muse when he grows tired. When Reynolds meets Alma, however, the tension grows from the very first minute: Reynolds sees through the shy waitress, becoming enthralled with her and letting her into his world.

The art of a perfect one-liner is reserved for a few, and Paul Thomas Anderson can nail the moment with a sharp sentence. With his quick retorts, he finds humour in dramatic situations, and the depth of feeling when there’s space for just a few words in the scene. Every character gets a tasty nugget of sarcasm at some point, but some of the best punchlines belong to Lesley Manville’s Cecil, who delivers them with unflinching confidence. “I don’t want to hear it because it hurts my ears,” she retorts confidently, with a stern face expression. In another scene, there’s even more of brutal honesty from her. “Don’t pick a fight with me, you won’t come out alive,” she utters, unfazed, sipping tea seconds after. And these are just some of the examples of Manville’s well-weighed delivery. She oozes with charisma and can be icy at times but brings a certain warmth to her character in the way she cares for his brother. Cecil is a lady made of steel, but she’s able to reveal much more than we expect her to, never falling prey to clichés.

The Englishness, gallantry and elegance that dominates the screen rehearses the dynamics between the pair and sets a lush background. Be it in the production design or in the way camera is in love with its richness, Phantom Thread transports us into a completely different era. The film is in love with the slickness of the interiors and haute-couture fashion, captured by the director himself.

Sewn into the fabric of the film is the story of a creative process, which could be considered in two completely different dimensions. It’s easy to compare Phantom Thread to a creation story like George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (or its adaptation My Fair Lady) – largely because of the power balances that are essential to the plot development. Reynolds transforms Alma but surrenders to her feelings afterwards. He takes her into his world, but unleashes her darker side, too.

Living with an artist is no easy task; exposure to their neuroses and ego can be straining. Considering this, Paul Thomas Anderson is interested in diving into the dynamics of the connection between Reynolds and Alma and understanding why they work for each other. Some of the events in the game the couple play with each other act as a slick metaphor for one party supporting the other and providing them with the fuel to go on. The loneliness of the creative act overlaps with the desolation of the other person. That, however, is never ultimate. It becomes a cycle that keeps the flame alive. They’re tangled in the game only the two of them understand; their environment is quick to jump to conclusions when it comes to their social setting, but both of them, eccentric in their own right, dispose of it in the name of their affection.

As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that Reynolds craves Alma’s admiration in a toxic way. He tries to take control of her life and forces her to make choices that are mostly self-serving. He imposes his peculiar routines on her, gets annoyed even by the sounds of cutlery buttering a toast over breakfast, scorns the little gestures of love she tries to arrange and cares little about what she wants to do – whether it’s a fabric choice for a dress, or plans to go out on New Year’s Eve. Daniel Day-Lewis crafts this persona carefully, seamlessly slipping into the nature of the unconventional fashion designer. The quirks he enraptures, the mood swings he depicts and the crises he goes through give us an insight into his head without justifying his behaviour. We become enamoured with his presence: filling the entire screen, he charms us with his total absorption into the character. The theatricality he purposefully employs serves his character without a shadow of artificiality. It’s just right for his character, and he knows how to control every single gesture to suit his vision.

However, the story of emotional abuse takes an unexpected turn, swiftly making it obvious that no party in this relationship is faultless. Alma becomes more than his previous muses because she’s not afraid to put her foot down and do whatever she desires. Her partner needs her admiration, but as much as she’s ready to support him, she doesn’t give in to his manipulations. She loves him, and she tries to make herself useful to him by doing whatever it takes to lock in his attention. Her much stronger character emerges from what we’ve been introduced to initially. She sets her own terms and doesn’t submit to his caprices while everyone else glorifies him. As a reaction to his “my way or the highway” behaviour, she develops her own sinister tactics, giving Reynolds a taste of his own medicine – in a very literal way. Vicky Krieps is a perfect match for the role. She leads us on with her innocence, hiding darker thoughts in the expressions we can’t see through. But when it comes to a confrontation, she knows perfectly well how to hit the right notes too, driving us in with her uncontainable anger.

Phantom Thread dashes with its characters, delivers burning lines without looking back at the audience and fascinates with its dedication to details. It provides us with a delightful love story based on changing dynamics between the trio who know how to put their special mark on the characters – and an admirable logistic effort from Paul Thomas Anderson which resulted in an intimate, engaging, dark film true to its character from the beginning to an end.

Phantom Thread opens in the UK on the 2nd of February 2018.

Kasia Kwasniewska

Editor in Chief

Passionate about far too many things. Loves reading, watching films, eyeing (and producing) good design, listening to music and stuffing her face with chocolate on a daily basis. Cooks from time to time, and drinks far too much coffee to be a normal human being. Liked my work? Buy me a coffee!

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