Food and appetite play key roles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” which allegedly is the last appearance we’ll see from thespian great Daniel Day-Lewis. “Thread” is a strange period piece and not, on paper, the type of film you’d think Day-Lewis would go out on. But keep in mind this is a flick by PTA, one of the most meticulous filmmakers of his time, if not all time – “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights” and “The Master” are among his many gems – and it’s a gasp to behold in composition alone.
The time is 1950s London, where haut fashion is defined by designers who create dresses and gowns for wealthy clients. Think of it as going to Versace or Wang’s house to get a gown tailor-made by the name-brander themselves. One such couturier, Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is so fastidious and OCD that when we meet him, he’s daintily snipping every protruding nose hair before tucking his button-down into his pants with painfully diligent care, so as to not cause an unseemly fold or crease. Appearance and posture is everything. Then it’s on to breakfast in a sunny anteroom of Woodcock’s stately London townhouse, where the dressmaker sips tea gingerly and nibbles on pastries as he goes about his sketches. With him are his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and latest conquest (Camilla Rutherford) – a much younger woman treated as a hanger-on who’s on the way out. When the wholesome ingenue clangs her silverware once too much for Reynolds’ concentration and he chides her for the unconscionable and incessant interruptions, she, knowing full well of her fate and tired of being ignored, raises her voice. Reynolds barely looks across the table and, with cold, restrained calm, says, “I cannot begin my day with a confrontation.” This is a cue to his loyal sis to clean up his romantic mess and allow him to get on with business.
The next young muse Reynolds has for breakfast is a chestnut-haired lass by the name of Alma (Vicky Krieps). They don’t eat together, but she takes his breakfast order at an inn in the British countryside. It’s also the first time we see Reynolds’ face light up (he orders Welsh rarebit, sausage, eggs, biscuit, toast, jam and butter, and so on – enough to feed a small village, and an obvious metaphor for his consuming desire). The two become lovers, but the relationship does not proceed as the others. Alma is cagey beyond what her porcelain innocence would imply, and the fact that she doesn’t knuckle under to Reynolds’ usual controlling tactics rattles him. It’s also here that we learn Reynolds’ client base has begun to erode. All is not well in the house of Woodcock, and Cyril, ever alert to the unhappy undercurrents, tries to keep the seams from bursting. Quietly sinister parlor games ensue, and Alma attempts to seize the upper hand by frying up a few unfriendly omelettes. The tone feels dialed in from another movie, but Anderson, ever the master of continuity and flow, holds it all together.
As staid an affair as “Phantom Thread” is, there’s always a current of raging turbulence under the tightly pinned collar; Anderson must surely be a fan of the great “Masterpiece Theater” staples. Day-Lewis turns in a fine performance. It’s not as frame-consuming as other, more notable efforts – “My Left Foot,” “Lincoln” or even the bombastic “Gangs of New York” – but it is what you’d expect from the man who’s arguably the Tom Brady or Michael Jordan of acting and the only performer to win a Best Actor Oscar three times. And as amazing as Day-Lewis is (he’s never been anything less) at filling the screen with smoldering quiet dignity, counterparts Krieps and Manville are more than up to the task of holding pace. The synergy between the three is so uncanny and genuine that you wonder if they weren’t brainwashed and shoehorned into their roles – forever to be Reynolds, Alma and Cyril in the waking world of 2018 and onward.
As far as Day-Lewis’ announced retirement and “Phantom Thread” being his final film, he’s a man so serious about his craft and family that you can’t imagine he’d make such a statement lightly. But his other partnership with Anderson, “There Will Be Blood” (2007), might have been a more fitting adieu; if not for the Oscar that Day-Lewis won or the film’s raw, bold, angry fangs, than for the fact that a name such as Woodcock is never a good end note. Puerile young men will have a field day with it. Had it been Bill “the Butcher” for “Gangs of New York” or Hawkeye in “The Last of the Mohicans,” not a snicker to be had.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.