Phantom Thread Review: Two Art House Legends Reunite, Come Up Just a Bit Short

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Infatuation and love are easily mistakable. The former is a feeling of human connection that can pass with the changing wind, while the latter requires long-term respect and compromise. Phantom Thread is a film about two people who enter a relationship love could never penetrate. Director Paul Thomas Anderson has constructed a cautionary tale about the consequences of selfishness, and the inability to ever really shun our most human desires. It’s meticulously crafted, gorgeous to look at, and written to be spellbinding, which more than make up for Anderson’s occasional self-indulgence.

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) is a highly respected dress maker in 1950s London. He’s also, in more modern terms, a womanizer. Subjects of his art come in and out of his house, and some stay longer than others, but Woodcock clearly falls more for his work than the women themselves. Something of a control freak, growing angry at the menial interruptions to his artistic routine more than once in the first act, it’s easy to see the parallels in this figure to the stories that circulate the sets of Daniel Day Lewis’ films, which perhaps explains why the actor found this role to be his proper end.

It’s not long before Woodcock meets a simple waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), sparking a more unexpected romance than his usual clientele. But Alma is as much of a human being as he is, and their methods of living and loving often contradict each other. Lewis is assuredly great, but the best performance of the film goes to Krieps, who uses intense, calculated microexpressions to play off of the brick wall that Woodcock ends up being, enacting every frustration, every failure, and every victory with confident nuance. She’s almost outdone by Leslie Manville, playing Woodcock’s sister and business partner Cyril with both a precise chill and a subtle layer of affection.

But the performances are only half of the allure here, as every aspect of Phantom Thread is just absolutely gorgeous. The costumes of course go without saying thanks to the subject matter, but Johnny Greenwood’s score and the cinematography—done by Anderson himself, for an unconventional twist—are also top notch, altogether creating an experience that’s never not engrossing.

Tone, however, is where Anderson occasionally falters. While the first half soars with intricate details worked into seemingly small interactions, as well as a downright, even infectious eroticism, the second half slows in its pacing, mostly due to the characters’ inability to change. The dynamic between Woodcock and Alma is thrilling to watch evolve as they both refuse to take the others’ desires into consideration, but the film’s pacing is deliberate, and the tone needed to accompany the complicated resolution never quite comes through, leaving the overall effort to feel a tad rushed and a little unsatisfying. For the amount of subtext worked into Phantom Thread, it’s ending note finally detaches the film itself from the humanity needed to ground it. This doesn’t undo all the beautiful work put into the film by the entirety of the cast and crew, but in regard to Anderson’s filmography of art house classics, Phantom Thread is definitely a peg down from the likes of The Master, There Will Be Blood, and even Magnolia. It’s undoubtedly a worthwhile effort, and a powerful final showcase of Lewis’ talents, just not the masterpiece that often seems like it’s trying to peak out. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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