While I’m not normally into fashion, I do think Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the most amazing actors. The film sounded intriguing, about a fashion designer whose life is disrupted by a young woman. My curiosity about the movie and my excitement over the actors drove me to see it. While it was different from what I anticipated, it was full of beautiful acting, witty dialogue and was an insightful exploration of power dynamics within a relationship.
Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a fashion designer in England, creating dresses for the rich and famous of the time, including royalty. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) is the only feminine constant in this confirmed bachelor’s life, other women coming and going, providing inspiration and companionship until he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), who immediately enthralls him.
He sweeps her off her feet, installing her in his house, as he designs dresses for her that she models for him. She soon becomes a fixture in his life as his muse and his lover. However, Reynolds prefers a carefully controlled life, his creative work coming first and Alma disrupts his perfect routine, challenging him and insisting that he give her more than scraps of his time. Over time, she finds ways to get him to demonstrate his more vulnerable side, flipping the power dynamic between the pair.
This is a love story, although a rather unique one. That being the case, it is unsurprising that it is all about the relationships, between Reynolds and Alma, between Reynolds and his sister Cyril as well as Cyril’s bond with Alma. The director and writer, Paul Thomas Anderson, deftly explores the element of control between the three primary characters. Each detail of the writing builds on the impact power and control have over the characters interactions with each other. At the beginning of the movie, Reynolds keeps a careful routine while his sister Cyril manages the fashion house and his personal life, assisting him with all the messy entanglements with his women. However, once he meets Alma, that all changes. Alma challenges his control as well as Cyril’s management of him, pointing out that he is too fussy. Cyril’s fondness for Alma and willingness to listen to her, allows her to step back. She illustrates just how strong a person she is and increasingly allows Alma more say in Reynolds life. Reynolds discovers how much he needs Alma and her disruption leads to him being more vulnerable and less controlling.
The dialogue is what drives this film. While there is some action, most of the characters are developed by their language and their actions toward each other. There are lines that resonate. When asked why Reynolds never married, he says marriage would make me deceitful. There is also a lovely explanation of the threads he places in his designs, statements and objects, like the lock of his mother’s hair he has stitched into the lining of his jacket. This shows the viewer how much his love for his mother drives him and you quickly can see that it is also part of his desire to maintain control, not wanting to be hurt by losing someone close to him. Alma’s actions show her as more strong willed from the beginning. When told she doesn’t have taste, her response is to say maybe she likes her own taste. She moves from innocent waitress to manipulative lover and yet remains human, her pain real and her idiosyncrasies, like being a noisy eater, realistic.
Another aspect that brings this film to life is the humor. I especially felt Lesley Manville was critical in this in her role as Cyril. She manages some fabulous deadpan humor, like when Reynolds gets angry with her for taking Alma’s side. She states, “Don’t pick a fight with me. I will put you through this table.” She also tells Alma, “You have the perfect shape. He likes a little belly.” These lines give hints of the character’s true thoughts in someone who is otherwise quiet. While her scenes resonated the most humor with me, Daniel Day-Lewis has his moments as well. One scene has Alma stomping around at breakfast, making tons of noise and he says, “It’s like you rode a horse through the room.” His delivery of lines like this lighten some otherwise slower scenes.
The acting is almost perfect. Daniel Day-Lewis is immersed in his character. You do not see him, you see Reynolds Woodcock, designer and dressmaker. It is clear from his acting that Reynolds is obsessive, controlling, a bit of a bully and a perfectionist. He is also creative and a stunning character. That level of immersion is rare and is one of the reasons this film is so good. Vicky Krieps portrays Alma as strong willed, challenging and manipulative. She also drives Reynolds to change, for better or worse. Lesley Manville shines in her role as Cyril, her comedic timing on her lines fantastic and the development of her relationship with her brother one of the elements I liked the most.
Along with the acting, the historical details take the film to the next level. The dresses are each gorgeous. The only film that I can compare them with is The Dressmaker and these are just as stunning, tailored to the time period and each one better than the last. Tiny details, like the actresses wearing clip earrings instead of having pierced ears made the historical geek in me happy.
There were some details, though, that did detract from the film. It was slow, the pace at times dragging. While some of the characterization was critical to the film and the development of the relationships, there were some tiny parts that could have been skipped, such as watching Reynolds drive to the country. Not only was it not necessary but the speed motion used in the filming actually made me dizzy. I was grateful it wasn’t used again. In addition, I found myself liking Alma’s character in the beginning of the movie, finding her completely sympathetic but as she begins to manipulate her relationship to gain more dominance, I did find myself not as engaged with her. My husband actually disliked her by the end of the movie. While her motivations are clear and I felt that this relationship dynamic was what the director and writer was striving for, I did have difficulty with that aspect. It did enhance the theme of power and control which would not have been as well done without her more negative aspects. I also felt that the resolution at the end of the film helps explain the relationship.
If you like slower paced films that are dialogue driven and explore fascinating characters, you should appreciate the elegance of this movie. The exploration of the relationships are compelling, unusual and brilliantly acted. The humor was unpredictable but delivered flawlessly. Daniel Day-Lewis was remarkable, Lesley Manville essential and Vicky Krieps arresting. The romance is unconventional and yet, surprising in its messy and complicated nature. It was refreshing to see such a different kind of love.
Rating: 4 stars
Set in the glamour of 1950’s post-war London, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) are at the center of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutants and dames with the distinct style of The House of Woodcock. Women come and go through Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young, strong-willed woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes a fixture in his life as his muse and lover. Once controlled and planned, he finds his carefully tailored life disrupted by love. With his latest film, Paul Thomas Anderson paints an illuminating portrait both of an artist on a creative journey, and the women who keep his world running. “Phantom Thread” is Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth movie, and his second collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis.
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, and Vicky Krieps
Writer/Director: Paul Thomas Anderson