Review: “Phantom Thread”

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Daniel Day-Lewis has had an amazing career, solidifying himself as one of the greatest actors of his generation. For one final time he hit the big screen in late 2017 and early 2018 with the now-Oscar nominated picture “Phantom Thread”, a movie that intrigued me greatly in previews and proved to be an engrossing, if disturbing, period piece and  love story worth delving into. With a great cast and powerfully respected director at the help, it’s no wonder many critics have fallen in love with this fashion-themed drama. But, is this film truly Oscar worthy? Here is my review of “Phantom Thread”.

WHAT’S IT ABOUT

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Daniel Day-Lewis turns in his (supposed) final big-screen performance as dress maker Reynolds Woodcock, a work-obsessed and controlling man who would rather make the dresses than attend the lavish parties where they are worn. Woodcock meets and immediately falls for a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) and the two strike up a romance leading to Alma moving in with Reynolds and becoming not only his lover, but also a prime model for his dresses. As time goes on the two lovers clash as Reynolds’ controlling nature and Alma’s sarcastic free spirit counteract each other. As the relationship begins to crumble Alma takes desperate measures to show Reynolds her affection while Reynolds learns to respect Alma’s wild personality despite its effect on his work.

THE ACTING

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As you may know by now “Phantom Thread” sports a few Oscar worthy performances, starting with the always delightful Daniel Day-Lewis in the leading role as Reynolds Woodcock. Once again the multi-Oscar winner and nominee turns in one of the most dedicated performances you’ll ever see as a work-obsessed, self-centered man with plenty of talent and charisma but a disposition towards romance and relationships. Admittedly this is not Day-Lewis’ most subtle or layered role, but it is tremendously believable and finely detailed as you would expect from an actor of his caliber. What makes Day-Lewis such an interesting actor is his work is always well above even the best of the best in his field, so while this may not be HIS most spectacular or subtle performance it’s still miles above even the greatest of his colleagues and matches bar he set for himself as a performer. Reynolds Woodcock is a detailed and human character that Day-Lewis truly loses himself in all the same. For that, he should once again be commended for such a commanding role.

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Vicky Krieps, who has appeared in only a select few American films, proves her own star power with a performance equally as believable as Day-Lewis. As Alma, Krieps creates a woman who serves as the antithesis to Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock. She’s just as determined and prideful of her lovers’ work, but she has a more animated and romantic view of their relationship and one focused more on their connection rather than their necessity for each other. While it’s easy to be impressed with Day-Lewis considering his incredible range, this is the performance that really stands out in the film for me because it presents us with a little-known actress who has enough talent and charisma to effectively play off of one of the best. Krieps’ character packs personality and innocence that slowly turns into a different kind of aggression than Reynolds’ and a more confident persona that is willing and able to go toe to toe with the wall that is her lover’s dry personality. Together the actors create what I affectionately referred to during my viewing as the “anti-Romeo & Juliet”, mismatched lovers who others believe are perfect for each other, but who have to overcome their own walls they’ve built to truly connect.

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Finally there’s the Oscar nominated Lesley Manville, who portrays Reynolds’ sister Cyril. Despite being a starring role in the credits, Cyril as a character actually takes a backseat to her brother and Alma as more of a mediator. At times she is suspicious of Alma and at other times aggressive towards her brother. In a way Manville’s performance provides balance in the romance. She is the rock that tries to show both characters the errors of their ways while also, with time, becoming more open to the strange quirks of both her brother and Alma. She’s the outside looking it, with a rebellious streak like Alma but an undying dedication to professionalism like Reynolds. She’s a necessary character despite her lack of screen time and Manville makes every moment count, playing off both her co-stars perfectly to complete a household of odd, but relatable individuals. I have a hard time calling this a more Oscar worthy performance that Krieps, but I’m not on the panel fso it is what it is.

 

THE DIRECTING

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This is one of those movies where direction truly deserves its own section. Paul Thomas Anderson has directed some of the most magnificent films of the last 25 years. “Phantom Thread” only adds to that record as one of his most subtle and story-driven projects to date. I’ll boldly say it’s one of my favorites ever by Anderson and deserving of the acclaim it has received over the last few months. Everything from the camera angles and atmosphere to the production quality, award-worthy music by composer Jonny Greenwood, the costumes, and the actors involved all come together to make a truly fascinating period drama that neither takes itself too seriously nor too lightly. Anderson’s talent for storytelling is commendable and his approach to this intricate and unique love story shows his careful attention to timing, detail, dialogue and imagery to the extent that “Phantom Thread” proves to be a truly immersive film. He not penned and directed the story, but he truly dedicated himself to bring it to fully realized life.

 

WHAT WORKED

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Just about everything really. I already touched on the direction and acting so what I really want to focus on in this section is the tone of the film. “Phantom Thread” is surprisingly consistent in its approach to storytelling, presenting us with genuine moments of frustration and humor from the leads while never loosing it’s footing at all. The entire film has an odd, but effective aura around it. This is no fairy tale love story. It feels real and raw and could very well be an oddball matchup any of us would experience in our own lives. “Phantom Thread” remains delightfully grounded from start to finish and proves to be an example of fascinating, but simple storytelling that focuses more on visuals and style than pure substance.

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“Phantom Thread” plays out at a smooth and satisfying pace. Yes, it’s a very artistic film but it’s one that, again, never takes itself so seriously that it’s hard to invest in. The character interactions and the development of Alma and Reynolds’ relationship all feel natural and believable and the moments where the two main characters do share tender experiences ooze with intense and at times even erotic tension that is truly hard to fake for the sake of a movie. Once the film kicks into high gear and both lovers try to either keep the relationship whole or destroy it we are presented with a complicated storm of emotions that truly gives this film a soul. What I’m trying to say is “Phantom Thread” pulls no punches in employing realism and humanity in its presentation of an otherwise cliche tale of romance that could have easily been more romanticized and overdone. It was actually refreshing to see a love story with faults and imperfections, one that much better defines the true struggles of one of humanity’s most complicated emotions than many other dramas tend to do.

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Also the film just looks fantastic. If you want to ignore the deeper elements and look at it on the surface “Phantom Thread” features some beautiful settings and visuals, great costume design and magnificent set pieces that make you feel like you’ve really gone back in time to its period setting. The film also includes a bit of modern touch as well, which gives it some spice. Since it is set in 1950s London “Phantom Thread” had a great backdrop and it never takes it for granted. So even if you don’t want to look deeper into the minds and hearts of the two central characters the presentation alone makes “Phantom Thread” a beautiful film to behold.

 

WHAT DIDN’T WORK

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No film is perfect in every way, but honestly I found very few flaws with “Phantom Thread”. My one gripe with the film is its lack of depth outside of the main trio of the Woodcock siblings and Alma. We do get to see a few other characters in the story, some more important than others, and many of them come off as underdeveloped or forced into the narrative because the scene clearly called for someone new to be involved. It’s a small issue that honestly doesn’t damage the story much, but to some it might make this story a bit one-dimensional. I keep coming back to the Romeo & Juliet comparison, but even those star crossed lovers had a great and memorable cast of supporting characters to serve as building blocks to bring the two together properly.

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With “Phantom Thread” most of the action takes place between three individuals, and the Woodcock sister doesn’t even get the screen time SHE deserves. It was nice to have the focus on just Reynolds and Alma, but unfortunately this approach prevents “Phantom Thread” from being much of an expansive story. It would have been nice to better understand the clients Reynolds deals with and why his job is so important to him from that perspective. Sadly all we get are a few throwaway lines to stress the importance of his clientele that fail to provide any depth of Reynolds’ mentality. However, we do get a small subplot about Reynolds’ bond with his mother, which also remains underdeveloped to tell the truth but also kind of helps redeem these flaws of the film by at least providing SOME subtext as the origin of Reynolds work-based obsessions. In the end “Phantom Thread” still works, but as a viewer I wanted to know more about others in Reynolds’ world and maybe even more of what they think of the man that we just never get to learn.

 

CONCLUSION

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“Phantom Thread” is a fantastic period drama and one that had my attention from start to finish. It presents a magnificently complicated love story that bucks traditional “love conquers all” themes and becomes a more relatable and, frankly, dark depiction of opposites attract. Its only flaw is its one-dimensional approach to the story in terms of characters, but the actors that do take center stage provide gripping and demanding performances that are truly worthy of praise. Add to that Paul Thomas Anderson at the helm and it’s no surprise this film has earned its place as an Oscar contender in 2018. Visually beautiful, emotionally charged and incredibly well paced “Phantom Thread” might not be your typical love story, but it’s one with enough depth and a sense of desire to brings you right into the struggle of two very different people to coexist in each other’s arms and worlds. It’s unique, it’s flashy, it’s controlled and it’s certainly worthy of a perfect score from me.

 

 

GRADE: 5 Stars

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