By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
The premise of director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson helming a tastefully sophisticated semi-gothic romance about a dictatorial dress designer in mid-1950s Britain sounds unlikely enough to be the followup to “Saturday Night Live’s” skit about a Wes Anderson horror flick. Instead, the lovely, hypnotic and intriguingly unpredictable “Phantom Thread” turns out to be one of the best films of his career.
Auteur Anderson’s considerably less reserved previous works include the porn-biz period piece “Boogie Nights,” the sprawling L.A.-mosaic mess “Magnolia,” the Adam Sandler dramedy oddity “Punch-Drunk Love” and an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s bizarre-noir “Inherent Vice.” His grim roman à clef “The Master” (featuring an L. Ron Hubbard-ish religious leader) and the Sinclair Lewis-inspired “There Will Be Blood” (about a ruthless turn-of-the-20th-century oilman), while grittier and more aggressively forceful than “Phantom Thread,” come closest to its surprisingly traditional novelistic sensibility.
If that description makes this sound like an off-puttingly stuffy good-for-you exercise that only pinkie-extended patrons would appreciate, fear not. While it admittedly is no comic-book thrill ride, the film is so accessibly elegant that even a pop-trash fan who can’t help noting the resemblance between star Vicky Krieps and Leighton Meester of “Gossip Girl” can enjoy it. (Ahem.)
Three-time Best Actor Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis (who received one of them for his raging brilliance in “There Will Be Blood”) says this will be his final film role. If so, he definitely is leaving on a high note, as the solemnly tyrannical and casually cruel London dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock. The domineering designer has a disturbingly codependent relationship with sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), a serious dead-mother fixation, and an apparent habit of discarding female companions who probably would be misdescribed as lovers. Referring to the latest one dismissed by his disregard, he notes, “I simply don’t have time for confrontations.”
His fancy is struck by the nearly half his age Alma (Krieps), a meekly placid waitress with a slight foreign accent of indeterminate origin. Although she plainly is not of his class, misplaces a step in the hotel dining room and later wears too much lipstick for Reynolds’ taste, Alma is no cartoonishly uncouth Eliza Doolittle. That’s because “Phantom Thread” is more “Rebecca” than “My Fair Lady,” with the imperious and humorless Cyril standing in for nasty Mrs. Danvers.
Reynolds at first regards Alma more as mannequin than muse, insensitively noting that “you have no breasts” during her first fitting and displaying no detectable interest in her as a person, much less a woman. Despite this, his attentiveness to taking every conceivable one of her measurements when she is half-dressed is erotic in itself, with Cyril’s intrusion on the moment adding a soupçon of shame. Even as the relationship between Reynolds and Alma develops into something more lasting, it does so with gradual and almost somber inevitability, rather than giddily starry-eyed romance.
When Alma’s increasingly distracting presence threatens to result in another Reynolds re-set, the film takes more than one intriguingly decadent, completely unexpected and satisfyingly original turn.
Two small and quirkily humorous aspects involve Reynolds’ ridiculously large breakfast order and his comically fast driving, which makes an amusing contrast to the more sedate tone of nearly every indoor scene.
Day-Lewis perfectly portrays Reynolds’ desperate dignity, shameless self-absorption and prideful dedication to his craft. One of the few times Reynolds shows genuine vulnerability is when he is hurt to learn that a longtime client has taken her business to a more “chic” competitor.
Krieps is excellent at both teasingly concealing and later revealing Alma’s hidden depths. And Manville is icily officious in her attempts to keep her brother undisturbed by the bothersome inconveniences of being human.
Exquisitely made and fascinatingly entertaining, this is one of the year’s best films.
“Phantom Thread” opens in New York and Los Angeles Monday, December 25 and expands to other cities in January 2018.