It’s probably not one-hundred percent correct to say that Phantom Thread is unmistakably a Paul Thomas Anderson film, but it sure feels right. The new cinematic offering is meticulously crafted, resolutely erudite, psychologically complicated, packed with insightful acting, and careens into compromised territory before it’s through, mildly undone by the filmmaker’s ambition to instill the unconventional when a more straightforward approach would do just fine.
Phantom Thread is set in London in the post-war tepid rejuvenation of the nineteen-fifties. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a revered fashion designer, with an elite client list and an ire raised by the most delicate affronts against his preferred routine. His professional and personal existence is kept in order by his spinster sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). When he follows the completion of an especially demanding garment by taking a holiday, he becomes enamored with a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). Reynolds aggressively woos her, incorporating her into his life as lover, model, muse, and dutiful worker bee.
The film largely operates as a triptych character study. With elegance and aplomb, Anderson renders the intertwining codependency. There’s a cunning to the explorations built into Anderson’s screenplay. The individual characters’ reactions reactions fold and flow like well-draped fabric. Day-Lewis and Manville are both enlivened by the undulating nuances handed to them, giving every last line reading shadings of surprise and thrilling discomfort. They are obviously and wonderfully driven by discovery.
Phantom Thread proceeds with a highly refined, classic Hollywood sensibility (Anderson has acknowledged a debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca), imbuing a timeless air about it, a quality further enhanced by Anderson’s cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s lovely score. Even the film practically begs to push through to the last frame of its final reel, Anderson takes the obsession onscreen to a heightened level that feels off in comparison to the rest of its narrative wisdom. No matter how well-mannered the storytelling, Anderson always seems to want a point in which he sends amphibians tumbling from the skies. The third act turn in Phantom Thread isn’t as provocative as that, but it relies on a version of the characters that rings false (and, maybe more damningly, it is forecast with a painfully obvious plot point, hardly the sort of misstep to which Anderson is prone). It’s as if the normal machinations of flawed people doesn’t strike Anderson as daring enough. The audience must be tested.
For me, the chief disappointment is how easy it would be to cleave out the offending plot digression. Every bit of it could be removed, and the pathologies of the characters would remain in place, and would likely read as more intriguing. The ideas that drive the film would be even more profound. I’m sure Anderson and his most devoted adherents would strongly disagree, but the film loses its way when it most strains to expose the darkness of the soul. Phantom Thread is greatness, undercut.