‘Phantom Thread’ – Daniel Day Lewis in his last ‘fussy and mysterious’ role

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

With “Phantom Thread,” Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson have made precisely the movie they wanted to make.

This is not as easy as it may sound. The variables, in a performance or an entire film, are immense and notably intractable.  The sort of icy control evinced in “Phantom Thread” calls to mind that other master of sub-zero cinema, Stanley Kubrick.

Phantom Thread

A scene from ‘Phantom Thread’

Kubrick would’ve liked “Phantom Thread.”  He would’ve liked to have made it, too.

Now, does that mean you will like “Phantom Thread?”  It’s hard to say, but I found it likable in a very chilly, obtuse, take-me-or-leave-me way. This is not a film that will meet you halfway.

In what he has said will be his last on-screen role, Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, couturier to the rich and fabulous of ‘50s London. Fastidious and driven, Woodcock is a Michelangelo with a needle and thread. He is also, within his domain, a petty tyrant, well aware of the power he wields over these women whose carefully-tended facades are his artistry.

He is also their last resort in the losing battle with mortality. When he shrugs off one aging client (“I mean, she’s lovely but her time has come”), you can all but hear the clods of dirt falling on her coffin.

Phantom Thread

One of the fashions portrayed in ‘Phantom Thread’

Woodcock’s high priestess, so to speak, is his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville), who tends to him as carefully as he tends to his gowns. Their relationship is as symbiotic as it is hermetically sealed. And it works perfectly until…

Woodcock meets a shy, self-conscious German waitress at a country hotel. She’s Alma (Vicky Krieps) and she knows appetite when she sees it (“For the hungry boy,” she writes on his bill).  Further, while she would seem the lamb among wolves in the Woodcock household, Alma turns out to have unexpected strengths — and appetites — of her own.

The movie is a lot like its star’s performance — fussy and mysterious. And subversively funny. The title refers to Woodcock’s habit of sewing secret messages into the lining of his garments.  In many ways, “Phantom Thread” feels like one such message — as if we’re being asked to discern a whispered confidence.

A friend likened the picture to Henry James and he may be right. But not “The Portrait of a Lady” or  “The Golden Bowl.” More, “The Turn of the Screw.”

Phantom Thread

A poster of ‘Phantom Threat’

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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