If “Phantom Thread” truly does represent Daniel Day-Lewis’ announced swan-song from acting, he heads into retirement on a high note in terms of his performance. The movie itself – reuniting the star and director Paul Thomas Anderson – is a sumptuous but chilly affair, meticulously stitched together, but intriguing without being emotionally involving.
In fact, the thumbnail review of the movie goes something like this: For those who worship at the cult of Anderson, and who swooned at the director and actor’s last collaboration “There Will Be Blood,” go buy tickets right now. Others who are more reserved in their admiration can probably wait until this almost-claustrophobic film comes to a smaller, more convenient screen.
It’s the mid-1950s, and Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock (the name sounds like an old financial firm), an unbearably particular dress designer who caters to the London elite. A self-described “confirmed” and “incurable” bachelor, he’s in the process of shedding the latest attractive muse in his life when he stumbles upon a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), and draws the wide-eye lass into his orbit.
Before long, Alma is sharing a home with Reynolds and his imperious sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who is vital to creating an environment in which her brother can work, and in her own way, she’s every bit as clenched and formidable. In a microcosm of the entire film, Alma’s attempt to do something nice for him – by sending everyone out of the house and cooking dinner – goes completely awry, largely because he can’t abide any change in his routine.
It is, in a way, a beautifully mounted indie-film version of “The Big Bang Theory,” with Reynolds standing in for Sheldon, brilliant but extremely demanding when it comes to those around him. Anderson captures that with the loving, highly detailed looks at the garments that Reynolds designs and Johnny Greenwood’s lush, florid musical score, which swells to crescendos and just as abruptly falls silent, reflecting the protagonist’s mercurial moods and melancholy.
Day-Lewis beautifully conveys all of this, capturing Reynolds’ quiet tyranny in scenes when he can’t even be bothered to raise his voice. For Alma, it’s a roller-coaster existence of ups and downs, one that tests her resolve as she seeks to placate him and, on occasion, stand up for herself.
Still, this peculiar romance unfolds within such a narrow range that it’s possible to find one’s interest waning, inasmuch as it’s difficult to forge much an attachment to anyone here. Part of that has to do with the fact we learn nothing of Alma’s life before their chance encounter, which makes it difficult to tell what she’s given up, or to what she might have to return.
Anderson obviously embraces the ambiguity of that, and there’s no denying that the director maintains an almost hypnotic tone, even in the soothing tenor of Day-Lewis’ voice.
“Phantom Thread” has something in common with another film released this year, the more off-putting “Mother!,” focusing as it does on the difficulty of becoming involved with an artist and, in essence, having to share them with the world. Yet while Reynolds’ rarefied sphere is an interesting place to visit, it’s not one, necessarily, that provides an equally powerful inclination to stick around.
“Phantom Thread” premieres Dec. 25 in New York and Los Angeles and additional cities in January. It’s rated R.