Film Review: Phantom Thread (USA, 2017) is a romantic comedy disguised as a period drama

I must be a really bad film critic since I have realised another error of my ways. After other mistakes, like never seeing a Agnes Varda film before until Faces Places, here’s another I must confess and rectify: I have never seen any of the works of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Considered to be the best actor of this generation, his work in films like Lincoln, There Will Be Blood, In the Name of the Father and My Left Foot have gathered massive acclaim, buoyed by Day-Lewis’s intense commitment to method acting. When it was announced that his latest film would be his last, filmgoers had their hopes up in what would be a swan song and not a swan dive.

And once again, I have another mistake I have to confess: I have only seen one of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s films, which is his romantic comedy/drama Punch Drunk Love. From that film alone, it’s perfectly obvious that Anderson’s direction is idiosyncratic, unorthodox and delightfully playful even during serious moments.

To rectify my barbaric ways of my lack of film knowledge, I ventured to watch Day-Lewis’ and Anderson’s latest collaboration, Phantom Thread. Considering the massive buzz and my lack of knowledge of both the film and the filmmakers, my mind was fresh to expect anything. Does the film live up to the buzz?

Set in 1950’s London, renowned dressmaker and “tragic” artist Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) are the milestone of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutantes and dames with the distinct and famous style of The House of Woodcock.

Women are used and dispensed with in Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship. That’s until he comes across a young woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes an asset in his life as his muse and his lover. Once feeling meticulous and in control, he finds his carefully tailored life (pun definitely intended) derailed by love.

Reading into the synopsis, it sounds like Phantom Thread is a film about the whining of a supposedly reclusive artist who complains about his way of life being disrupted until a woman comes into his life and supports him through this supposed dilemma. But this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film, so don’t expect it to follow any genre conventions, as it is really a romantic comedy disguised as a period drama.

Anderson (acting as the cinematographer and writer in-between directorial duties) conveys a magical and wondrous mood mixed with acerbic wit to themes that usually wouldn’t warrant such things; sadomasochism, toxic masculinity, gastronomy and of course, tailoring and dressmaking.

But even with doing all of these things, and accomplishing them very well, he never forgets the humanity of the distinct characters. And the storytelling never goes through certain cinematic conventions and tropes, always keeping the audience on edge, particularly during the climax.

Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood helms an absolutely magnificent score. Emotionally stirring, incredibly catchy and in perfect synchronisation with Anderson’s twisted storytelling, the score is essentially a character of the film itself. While Greenwood has made many great musical scores like with Norwegian Wood and We Need to Talk About Kevin, he really proves himself as the master of his craft here.

In fact, the sound design by Christopher Scarabosio is done so well it complements the story; adding punch to comedic scenes, aiding in the unraveling characters and even adding a sense of palpable tension. And to think that all of this can come from the simple act of buttering toast.

As you’d expect, the film’s star attraction is no disappointment, and the supporting cast deliver strong performances throughout. Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic as Reynolds Woodcock (no, really), as he isn’t afraid to delve into the flaws of the character as well as imbuing a bit of a tongue-in-cheek quality that makes Woodcock fun to watch, if not repellent in retrospect. Whether he is swearing at his colleagues or beating Alma at mind games (or in one scene, backgammon), Day-Lewis makes Woodcock strangely magnetic.

But as good as he is, it’s the actresses who are the stand-outs of the film. Vicky Krieps (who is best known to Westerners in films like Hanna and A Most Wanted Man) is absolutely brilliant as the multi-faceted Alma. The more Woodcock (or in another case, Anderson) pulls on the thread about Alma, the more she unravels as an alluring, strong, off-kilter and charming person. Krieps opens up convincingly, sweeping the audience off their feet in the process.

The interactions and chemistry between Krieps and Day-Lewis sway between wonderful, acidic, funny and a little bit psycho (intellectually and humourously speaking), especially during a dinner scene where they argue about such minuscule issues like how asparagus should be cooked. What’s best about their chemistry is that it never feels rehearsed or prepared; it feels intimate and immediate. In every relationship, there’s always that person that has the upper hand, but in the case of Woodcock and Alma, it’s hard to know who has it, and it becomes quite fun to figure it out.

And of course, there is Lesley Manville. Mostly known for her collaborations with acclaimed director Mike Leigh, she brings much humanity to the role of Cyril Woodcock, that she easily avoids conveying her character as a one-dimensional thorn on one’s backside.

While the film is definitely unconventional, Phantom Thread can be seen as an experience that can be quite irksome due to the fact that Anderson always avoids cinematic conventions to the point that it can feel artificial and self-satisfying. But if one were to look at it in a different way, that kind of creative influence could apply to the character of Reynolds Woodcock himself.

As beautiful as it is twisted, Phantom Thread is a film worth unravelling, with wonderful performances, Anderson’s unpredictable storytelling and Greenwood’s emotionally stirring score that is sure to appeal to adventurous cinemagoers in Australia and around the world.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Phantom Thread is in cinemas now.