Reynolds Woodcock is a successful dressmaker. He personally designs everything from evening gowns to party frocks to lavish wedding dresses for the rich and famous. Countesses and princesses from all over Europe flock to London to have Woodcock design garments for their milestone celebrations. Meticulous in his daily routine, Woodcock is a serious and driven man – caring only for his work and little else.
As you might expect, Daniel Day-Lewis is the perfect actor to embody such a role as that of Reynolds Woodcock. That he succeeds so flawlessly is a testament to one of our greatest living actors (and the only man to ever win three Oscars for acting in a lead role). That a new love interest might shake up his austere and tightly scheduled world should come as no surprise; after all, a story must proceed in a certain direction. What might surprise you is just how much his equal Woodcock finds when he invites an ordinary resort-town breakfast waitress to dine with him one evening.
This is the premise of Paul Thomas Anderson’s long-awaited “Phantom Thread,” pairing Day-Lewis and Anderson for the first time since 2008’s classic “There Will be Blood.” These two pictures could not be more different in tone and breadth. While “Blood” was a sweeping epic, “Thread” is a small and personal film, in which all the action could be condensed into fifteen minutes. Instead, Anderson takes his time to tell a tale of love at first sight turned sour and then redeemed (or at least accepted by both parties).
Woodcock has a habit of falling for women and inviting them to live with him and his sister in his mansion – but not allowing them to penetrate any of the confines of his life. He doesn’t want their help with his work; nor does he want them to disturb his routine in the slightest manner. He requires the presence of his lady du jour only during his down times – and I’m not referring to his evenings. He spends them in deep thought, designing more dresses on a large pad of blank white paper. No, Reynolds Woodcock experiences down time every few weeks, or even months – on those rare occasions when he clears his mind of his work and his stature in upper-class circles. In the meantime, what is his muse to do?
Enter one Alma Elson, a Swedish commoner played with understated strength by Luxembourgian actress Vicki Krieps. Alma soon learns the house of Woodcock is no ordinary scene. When she butters her morning toast too loudly, Woodcock’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) warns that her “outburst” could upset his routine for the remainder of the day. Far be it for anyone to ask that Woodcock and his pad of paper move from the breakfast table to another room in the mansion. This is Woodcock’s territory, and no one shall disturb it.
As Woodcock’s rigid and demanding nature is exposed, the logical reaction of almost any mate would be to leave without allowing the front door to hit her behind on the way out. But Alma is different. She sincerely loves Reynolds and all his flaws, but in her own quiet and downplayed manner. Rather than fighting Woodcock and attempting to tear down the proverbial walls he has structured around his inner soul, Alma slowly and steadily penetrates each roadblock to true love – sometimes going to shockingly great lengths to place Reynolds in his all-too-rare vulnerable state of being.
“Phantom Thread” is a fascinating study in subtle manipulation, and while it never enters that territory of eternal greatness of some of Anderson’s other films (“Magnolia,” “There Will be Blood,” “The Master”), it succeeds in its own way – on a smaller, more personal scale. In Anderson’s body of work, I liken “Phantom Thread” to “Barry Lyndon” in Stanley Kubrick’s output – an intimate portrait of a man knocked off his proverbial high horse, coming on the heels of some of the most intense moviemaking in history – “Blood” and “Master” for Anderson; “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange” for Kubrick.
Anderson’s lush cinematography is a palette of deep, gorgeous colors, as Woodcock’s dresses are paraded in front of the camera like classic works of art. And Jonny Greenwood’s music seems to let us inside the characters’ inner thoughts, as it adeptly and creatively fills the periods between dialogue.
Some viewers will be disappointed with the open-ended conclusion to “Phantom Thread,” but this isn’t the kind of picture to end in violent fury, like “There Will be Blood.” Reynolds Woodcock isn’t the type of man for whom great change is possible. But watching a member of the bourgeoisie pierce his skin has made for one of the best films of this Oscar season.