Phantom Thread is ridiculous, but never mocking. It is absurd, but the laughs come from understanding the characters’ worries and empathizing with them. Reynolds Woodcock, played by the undeniable Daniel Day-Lewis, lives in a world of his own; one filled with beautifully fashionable dresses and unfortunately loud breakfasts. He is a prominent dressmaker whose designs are worn by celebrities and princesses. His life seems far from standard because it is also entirely separated from practical concerns. All those messy matters are instead delegated to his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who accompanies him everywhere, which again, is never treated as abnormal. His only remaining focus is on his dresses. And the dresses are unassailable. Meticulously created by costume designer, Mark Bridges, every piece from the House of Woodcock is believably from a master. This immersion is crucial and director Paul Thomas Anderson ensures that it is apparent in every aspect of the film. Woodcock’s house, which also acts as his studio, gleams and the camera highlights every curve of fabric and lace as it is draped over table, mannequin, or woman. It is clear that the film is as passionate and detail-obsessed as the character at its center. The film inhabits the world of Reynolds Woodcock so fully that the audience is inevitably drawn in too.
The effort, of course, is led by Daniel Day-Lewis. The actor has always been known for his devotion to the art. He has outdone himself in what may be his last-ever role, preparing for it by apprenticing with the costume department of the New York City Ballet for months before starting filming. His dedication is most appropriate for Reynolds Woodcock, whose fixation on his craft blinds him to everything else. That is, until, Alma (Vicky Krieps), catches his eye, one fateful morning. At first, the attraction seems strange, an oddly impulsive decision for a man who regulates every action in his life. Yet, like every moment in this film, it is a strangeness that feels normal in the context of Reynolds Woodcock. Every illogical element is matched by one that is entirely sensible. Reynolds and Alma’s relationship is both loving and antagonistic, both childish and mature. Reynolds is set in his strict routine, even breakfast must be conducted with certain restrictions. Alma complies, for a while. It is her pushback that makes the film fascinating. Krieps plays Alma with demureness and a hidden ferocity. She is able to withstand and match the intensity of Day-Lewis, challenging the experienced actor in a way that few actresses have ever done. They are an endlessly captivating pair. Their battles are fought with silent looks, snipping threads, and over-buttered asparagus. It is a war; simultaneously, it is passion.
The film’s reserve only enhances the tension as Alma and Reynolds never resort to physical violence or even raised voices. They fight privately over unseen things, over perhaps unattainable things. They fight for love, for openness, for vulnerability. These understated struggles are hilarious and relatable in a way that battles against a hoard of CGI aliens can never match. They are, after all, struggles that are faced by all. The desire to share one’s life is met equally by one’s fear of that closeness. Phantom Thread is able to engage every one of those emotions, a prestige film that is able to grin at its own ludicrousness.