His films may range from greatest to good but none can deny writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s innate ability to envision complex & lifelike characters from scratch, bestow them with layered depths & well-defined arcs, and then draw out outstanding performances from his cast to infuse life into those scripted personas. It’s not the events but the characters who drive the narrative in his films and his latest is no different. A fascinating vignette of power dynamics set in the couture world of 1950s London, Phantom Thread is another absorbing character study from the esteemed auteur.
Phantom Thread follows Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned fashion designer who creates dresses & garments for members of high society. A confirmed bachelor with a charismatic personality, women come & go through his life and only exist to provide inspiration to his craft. Things however take an interesting turn when he comes across a young, strong-willed woman named Alma who becomes a fixture in his life as his muse, assistant & love interest. Basking in the creativity her arrival inspires at first, Woodcock soon finds her presence disrupting his carefully tailored routine which he has perfected over the years.
Written & directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread reunites the master storyteller with Daniel Day-Lewis after the two dazzled viewers & critics alike with the epic drama There Will Be Blood a decade ago. As before, characters take centre stage early in the story with events unfolding around them. Their introduction aptly establishes who’s in control, after which Anderson slowly but steadily starts shifting the power from one character to another, and this very struggle for control is played throughout the picture. His direction is just as calm, confident & composed as before, presiding over every little detail as he unfolds the narrative at his desired pace.
The 1950s London setting comes alive in a very splendid fashion and so does the couture scene of the said era. Costume design is undeniably an important aspect and those finished dresses bring a luminous quality to those frames but the real pleasure lies in watching Woodcock obsess over smallest details of his life & métier. Cinematography is smooth & relaxed throughout, employing subtle movements to make sure the focus stays on characters while the rich colour palette infuses added texture to the images. Editing is controlled, unfolding the plot at an unhurried pace but it can be troubling if you are not invested in the characters’ journey. And Jonny Greenwood contributes with a graceful score that’s almost always perceivable.
Coming to the performances, Phantom Thread features a fantastic cast in Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps & Lesley Manville, and the trio bring their A-game to the table. Returning to cinema after a 5-year hiatus and possibly for the last time, Day-Lewis commits to his character like only he can and brings Reynolds Woodcock to life from inside out, thus adding another remarkable performance to his acting oeuvre. And yet his rendition isn’t the most impressive, for both Krieps & Manville challenge his work with strong individual inputs of their own. Manville exhibits a dominating demeanour as his sister Cyril while Krieps chips in with a career-defining show that keeps getting better as plot progresses and eventually steals the show as Alma, his muse & lover.
On an overall scale, Phantom Thread is a masterly directed, deftly scripted, finely layered, wonderfully photographed, patiently paced & exquisitely performed tale of love, obsession & power that’s original, alluring & engrossing. Everything about Reynolds Woodcock is intriguing. Everything about Alma & Cyril has a hint of mystery. And the finesse with which the director handles the dynamics between them is what makes the experience so intoxicating. Sure there are few moments that it could have done without or found a better way to illustrate the same point but for the most part, it’s a quality example of first-rate storytelling. Another spectacular entry in Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography and a fitting finale to the greatest acting career of our time, Phantom Thread is one of the best all-round films of the year. Enjoy your retirement, Mr. Daniel Day-Lewis.