“Phantom Thread”: Review

A love affair ends dismally, in the elegantly wallpapered breakfast room of a grand London townhouse: a suggestive Belgian iced bun is spurned.

Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), her fine features just starting to wilt, offers her lover, the celebrated and fastidious couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a richly glazed, cherry-topped pastry. Johanna knows that her capricious lover’s appetite for food, and his amorous appetite, are one and the same. He tells her she is getting fat.

Johanna will soon be put out of her misery by Cyril (Lesley Manville). Cyril is Woodcock’s icily capable business manager – and sister. She is practical and dislikes the drawn-out agony of her brother’s conquests – his coldness in the face of successive lovers’ despair, distilled in poisonous drops, breakfast after breakfast. That evening, over supper in a restaurant later revealed as a regular family haunt, Cyril gently suggests Reynolds take a break. Maybe he should go away for the weekend.

The handsome couturier drives through the night, in his maroon Bristol 405, to the family’s country house on the Yorkshire coast. The mansion’s façade is reminiscent of Manderley, the Manderley of Hitchcock’s version of Rebecca. The austere splendours of 1950s England are about to unfurl, to a lush, romantic soundtrack. Jonny Greenwood’s score drives the wistful, dreamy, lyrical mood to an astonishing degree. Without it, the film might feel darker, but the cascading piano notes, echoing Bill Evans, Ravel and Debussy, bring to it sunny and hopeful inflections.

Reynolds stops for breakfast at a nearby hotel, and meets his destiny. It is a deliciously playful scene. A tall broad-shouldered young waitress (Vicky Krieps) stumbles as she enters the dining room. Looking up, she sees Reynolds watching her, and she smiles. Reynolds radiates irresistible seduction. The grouchy, ageing, fussy man from the day before is transformed. The playfulness, the twinkle in his eyes, the softness of his voice – almost anyone would now fall for him.

When she brings him breakfast – tellingly he has made an elaborate, seductive order, almost the whole menu – she slips him a note addressed ‘to the hungry boy’. Her name is Alma. It is obvious she is an outsider – she has a foreign accent – perhaps she is a person displaced by war. It’s a quietly vibrant scene, suspenseful. She blushes. He asks her out to dinner. There is a long pause. Later that night, she will smile calmly, and tell him: “If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose”.

Reynolds does not yet quite understand what he is in for. He is a self-absorbed man, implacable in the routines he forces on himself and others, fastidious about his appearance, and averse to closeness. He has met more than his match; he understands that only much later, and with delight. Patricia Highsmith meets Jean Cocteau in this infinitely pleasurable fairy tale. There will be times when it becomes difficult to discern who the ogre might be. Delight and cruelty take turns to lead the waltz. It’s exquisite, and darkly wry.

It is also a deliciously crafted film. It keeps up the tension as tightly and delicately as an expert seamstress does with silk thread. The story and characters are just as delicately and precisely constructed as the clothes they wear. The performances are absorbing. Lesley Manville offers a richly drawn portrait of Cyril, a person as intelligent as she is decent, and who, unlike her brother, looks to the future. She understands early on what Alma has to offer.

It is a remarkable performance: while plot twists and passion are part of what keeps the audience glued to Krieps and Day-Lewis, Manville invites rapt attention even in apparent repose. She does not have to be seen to be doing anything, ostensibly, to invite an intense gaze. The costume design for Cyril’s character is exquisite, adding strength and quiet authority to her character. In charcoal and blue-black tones, the creations by Thomas von Nordheim are dazzlingly understated. Where the outfits worn by Alma and Reynolds draw second glances thanks to their texture and colour as well as cut, the eyes drink in Cyril’s suits and dresses because of the purity of their lines. She arguably wears the best clothes of them all.

Colour is another delight in “Phantom Thread”. The tones of the walls – the blue-black in one room, the ivory in others, serve to highlight the elegance of the clothes paraded in the fashion house. When Reynolds first makes a dress for Alma, he places several coloured samples of raw silk on her shoulders, near her face and neck – colour accents that recur through the film. He asks about her mother’s eye colour. If Alma is perfect for him, it is also because she suits the colours he loves, and has the type of body shape he can transform. His first creation for Alma matches the colour of the bishop socks he seen putting on the day before their first meeting, that morning when he spurned Johanna’s iced bun.

It is one of those deeply pleasurable films where there is no guilt in admiring the texture of cloth, the lines of a car, or the desirability of a house – or the plot twists and obsessions. The clothes and cars and houses are not distractions from the story. They are part of it, enveloping layer within layer something sad and mysterious, hidden deep within its world.

Each glimpse of wallpaper, glance at polished leather, or illusory sensation of feeling the texture of fabric – these are synaesthetic experiences, a sensuous world of touch captured visually, eyes like fingers running across fine stitching. When Reynolds drives off with Alma later that night in his Bristol 405, a car famed in its time for its superb road handling, it is not only to impress Alma that he takes it through its paces – it also for the audience to revel in the luxurious filmmaking, the depth of the research in building the story, the love and care in procuring the objects it features, objects such as the piece of genuine 17th century lace later cut and sewn into a dress. And when Alma looks so surprised by the sudden acceleration of that Bristol 405, one wonders if it is the actor as well as the character who is taken aback.

This is one of the delights of the film, the way it shows its seams, intentionally, intimating that it, too, is an haute couture product, and a material object of desire.

That desire is driven by the camera – understated, but hungry for visual pleasure. It does not seek to dazzle with complex movement or arcane points of view. It is solidly grounded – it is the eyes of an onlooker. It is true that ostensibly virtuoso camera movement would have been awkward, given the filming locations. Though the Georgian townhouse is large, it is still a space designed on a human scale. In real life a house on Fitzroy Square, which in the 1950s would have been a rather bohemian place and the opposite of Mayfair, where the House of Reynolds is fictionally set, it still feels grand but must have seemed cramped, when filled with cast and crew and equipment.

The camera is intimate with the space and the people it surveys. Perhaps it offers the perspective of the ghostly presence which we find might haunt the lives of the Woodcock siblings: their mother. She is seen once, perhaps twice; an apparition wearing an antique wedding dress, designed by her son for her second marriage. She looks like a bride from a Marc Chagall painting.

In a scene set in the townhouse’s magnificent stone staircase, the camera does exactly what a person would do, tilting up to look at and through the skylight which crowns the steps. The image gradually bleaches out as sunlight floods the lens, just as one would be dazzled by sunlight. The understated, elegant cinematography is uncredited. Anderson is reported to have said it was a collaborative effort, and it is understood he worked with his lighting cameraman, Michael Baumann. The texture of the image is as desirable as the texture of the fabrics or of the skin it lingers over. Shot on 35mm film, the grain, colour and light gradations remain on the cusp of one’s consciousness through the story.

The striving for authenticity and detail are evident. The lovers’ first meeting, in that hotel breakfast room, was a first meeting, too, for Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis, and the scene is in part improvised. Anderson has been reported to comment that Alma’s stumble was ‘real’, and so was her blush.

In another scene, much later, when they argue – another mealtime scene, this time featuring delicately steamed asparagus, resplendently green and draped with silky molten butter – the argument is also in part improvised. There is a remarkable strength to it. It feels like luggage from real life spilling open into fiction.

Real life steps in, in other ways. The seamstresses are led by Joan Brown and Sue Clark, not usually actors but rather docents at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and practitioners in their own right. Cyril, in effect the CEO of the House of Woodcock, is not a female exception – there really were London couture houses run by designers’ sisters. Meanwhile Woodcock’s character, while not based, as rumoured, on the British American couturier Charles James (who was said to be influenced by Christian Dior), is inspired by designers such as Cristóbal Balenciaga, Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell, the latter two well-known for their relationship with royalty. At times, “Phantom Thread” is reminiscent of Jean Cocteau’s film Les Enfants Terribles, a film which incidentally featured lavish Dior costumes as well as orphan siblings.

Reynolds, of course, wears beautiful clothes, matching his intent. When he faces the world, he wears distinctively cut outfits (Day-Lewis, who was instrumental in creating the character, wore custom-made suits from Anderson & Sheppard, and shoes from Cleverley’s). It comes as no surprise that he drinks lapsang souchong. But when Alma dresses up one evening and cooks him dinner, in the hope of deepening their bond, he stalls by taking a bath, and then appearing in his pyjamas, a tweed jacket and silk neckerchief – a devastating signifier of distance and rejection. But Alma is not Johanna. This cannot defeat her.

Alma is a self-possessed young woman. I live here, she tells a princess who has come to the House of Reynolds for a wedding dress fitting. She has asserted her legitimacy, and if there is any Brontë in this story it is more late Jane Eyre than Wuthering Heights. The theme of anti-semitism passes like a dark cloud over her story. Julia Davis, brilliant in the role of Lady Baltimore, says terrible things about Alma to Reynolds, xenophobia and anti-semitism trumping any insight she would otherwise have, that Reynolds, too, is other. Later, there is a long close-up on Alma’s face, as she hears a journalist ask Barbara Rose (a nod to the famously doomed Barbara Hutton), an heiress and investor in the House of Reynolds, about Barbara’s fiancé – how does she feel about his having sold visas during the war to Jewish refugees? There is comeuppance ahead.

Daniel Day-Lewis, of course, prepared intensively for his role, and spent almost a year as apprentice to the New York Ballet’s costume director, Mark Happel. In a close-up, when Reynolds conceals an embroidered message in the seam of a princess’s wedding dress, pinpricks of congealed blood can be seen on his fingers. The skin and nail of his thumb are worn by his craft.

The concealed message carries deep significance for Reynolds. The words ‘never cursed’ are embroidered on fabric tape, in mauve thread – a riff on a recurring colour scheme, close in colour to the bishop’s socks he wears. Is that mauve thread the phantom thread? Perhaps, in a way – but phantom thread is also a reference to the involuntary sewing movement that hard-worked seamstresses would continue even after their shift had ended, a continuing physical memory. And Reynolds is cursed by memory, loss and grief. One night, in a fever, semi-conscious – and it is a stunning, complex, heart-stopping scene, the apogee of the film – he whispers “Are you here? Are you always here? I miss you. I think about you all the time.”

The production design is stunning. A New Year’s Eve scene at the Royal Albert Hall – the scandalous Chelsea Arts Club annual ball – remains etched in the mind. It is a high point in the almost violent emotion Alma and Reynolds feel for each other – and a tug of war – but it is also a striking piece of history, capturing the raucous and colourful atmosphere of an event famed for its freewheeling licentiousness.

Despite this wealth of detail, the story remains gripping. How will things turn out? A lusciously desirable omelette, lovingly made, provides a decisive, delightfully daring turning point.

“Phantom Thread” dances around almost dubious territory, a significant age gap, a disparity in social and economic power – but the lovers are equal in their will, and Alma finds an unorthodox way to establish a balance, playfully and dangerously. The audience is kept on its toes, drop by drop of poisonous delight, always on the cusp of uncertainty.

Despite this wealth of detail, the story remains gripping. How will things turn out? A lusciously desirable omelette, lovingly made, provides a decisive, delightfully daring turning point.

“Phantom Thread” dances around almost dubious territory, a significant age gap, a disparity in social and economic power – but the lovers are equal in their will, and Alma finds an unorthodox way to establish a balance, playfully and dangerously. The audience is kept on its toes, drop by drop of poisonous delight, always on the cusp of uncertainty.

Buy the DVD on Amazon

Director and Writer Paul Thomas Anderson
Cinematography Uncredited (‘a collaborative effort’)
Editor Dylan Tichenor
Soundtrack Jonny Greenwood
Costume Design Mark Bridges
Production Design Mark Tildesley
Cast Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Gina McKee, Julia Davis, Brian Gleeson, Joan Brown, Sue Clark

This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our writing is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative.