The wonderfully named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a highly respected and sought after fashion designer in 1950s London. Whilst he is capable of designing exceptional dresses, he requires all other elements of his life to be taken care of and controlled by his ever-present sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). When Reynolds visits the countryside he is served breakfast at a restaurant by Alma (Vicky Krieps), and is instantly smitten with her, and they later go on a date that ends far differently than she probably imagined. He has had muses before, but there’s something about Alma that keeps her around for far longer than his previous flings.
This review has taken a little while to get to, in that I watched Phantom Thread before the Oscar ceremony earlier this year. I saw it for two reasons: firstly, it was nominated for several major awards including Best Picture, Director, Actor and Supporting Actress (it won none of these, only Best Costume Design) and secondly because it’s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the film-makers of whom I’m covering their entire career. The subject matter of a period drama in which a fashion designer experiences a strained relationship with his latest ingenue-as-muse didn’t interest me in the slightest, but I sought it out anyway because that’s the kind of hero I am.
This was the first year in which I was able to see all the Best Picture nominees prior to the Oscar ceremony, and of this year’s nine nominees I’d only recommend watching four (Dunkirk, Get Out, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and The Shape of Water). Of the five I don’t recommend, though, Phantom Thread is probably the best. It has some fantastic acting from the three leads, particularly Krieps who was criminally neglected by the Academy when it came to nominations. Considering she is able to hold her own against one of the greatest living actors is beyond impressive. Day-Lewis gives a typically layered performance, albeit one more measured and precise than his more bombastic fare in the likes of Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood or even Lincoln. Woodcock is far from Day-Lewis’ showier roles, but just as his character sews hidden messages and keepsakes into the linings of his work, so too does Day-Lewis imbue Reynolds with a mesh of idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. Manville, too, makes an antagonist into a fully formed character, brittle and severe yet human all the while.
Keeping on a positive note, there was an unexpected vein of humour running throughout, although it’s rather dark and esoteric in nature, coming from a place of finding comedy in the unhealthiest of relationships and some sandpaper-harsh burns. Often the comedy comes from a situation where if you weren’t smiling at the proceedings you’d be close to crying with rage and frustration, so I can fully understand if many are put off instead of finding the humour. Let’s just say that it wouldn’t take all that much editing to re-cut this as a horror movie.
So why in the end is this not a recommendation? Well to start with it’s often very dull. As I mentioned recently, period dramas ordinarily bore me senseless with their obsessions over everyone behaving in a prim and proper manner, as is the case here. At 130 minutes the story starts to drag even before reaching the midway point, and were it not for a steady stream of plot developments or incredible acting I’d have most assuredly fallen asleep several times. It doesn’t help that the characters are all awful and no fun to be around. Reynolds is entitled, pampered and obnoxious – he believes he has the right to dictate how the dresses he has sold may be worn, and demands them back if his standards are not met – and it was overall hard to root for anyone or care how anything ended up in their lives. Granted the climactic plot dalliances are intriguing and unexpected, but they were barely enough to keep me awake.
Above all though it’s the subject matter. I just don’t care about dress designing and dress-making, and the whole film feels like a celebration of a side of culture that should not be overly commended. Plus, and bear in mind this opinion comes from one of the people least qualified to make this distinction, but none of the costumes Reynolds designed in the film were terribly nice, and most of the dresses looked awful. That could well be just me though.
Choose Life 6/10