Starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Rated PG
Daniel Day-Lewis says he’s done with acting now.
Of course, Frank Sinatra quit a number times before he actually stepped off-stage for good. But Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t have as glorious a sendoff as this role, which shows DDL at the peak of his powers, as fictional fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock—an outsized character who can be seen as a meditation on the narcissism and intense concentration required for acting on this level.
Phantom Thread is also a return to stoical form, after the forced whimsy of Inherent Vice, for writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who moves Day-Lewis a half-century forward from 2007’s There Will Be Blood. The new one is set in early-’50s London, with postwar greys finally giving way to deeper, more extravagant colours. Woodcock is the most sought-after designer for royals and Richie Riches of various stripes (but not plaids), and has created a fiefdom in which creativity must be indulged, with almost military precision, by an all-female staff.
This castle keep is overseen by his sister, Cyril (Mike Leigh regular Lesley Manville), whose topsy-turvy name is an oblique hint at their ambiguously close relationship. One of Cyril’s duties is to help the never-married Reynolds get rid of whatever mistress he currently finds too demanding. But she’s not there on a motoring trip to his country estate—driving way too fast is his one out-of-character indulgence—when he meets a café waitress whose jib he fancies cutting.
Like Luxembourgish actor Vicky Krieps, here in a star-making role, working-class Alma is someone you might not notice at first. Until you do. For unknown reasons, Alma can stand up to Reynolds, but is also subservient to him where it counts: in the fitting room. “No one can stand as long as I can,” she says in a rare boast.
At 130 minutes, this Thread requires some sitting skills. It’s a film of chilly design, but its beauty warms up over time, aided by a seductive score from Jonny Greenwood, mixed with apt period music. The story of a man who uses, and gradually loses, his toxic power may appear rigidly architectural at first, but almost nothing goes the way you expect, and the finish—happy by Anderson’s standards, if a bit rushed—suggests the whole thing is a cautionary moral fable, not a biography or a case of cinematic acting-out.
Like Woodcock, Anderson does it his way.