Phantom Thread

 

                Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a tremendously successful fashion designer in 1950’s London.  Everyone who’s anyone comes to him:  duchesses, society matrons, debutantes, socialites, heiresses:  anyone who’s rich enough to not have to ask about price.  In fact, there’s never any mention of how much any of his dresses cost.  There’s only the fitting, and the measuring, and the cutting, and the sewing.  And then the final presentation, which is always smashing.

                Success like this has made Mr. Woodcock ill-mannered, ill-tempered, completely set in his ways, and intractable in his irascibility.  The only woman he tolerates around him for very long is his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville).  She’s put up with him all his life, and is willing to fire back if necessary.  Otherwise, she helps him set up his tyrannical fiefdom.  The employees file in dutifully at the same time, and recognize that they are to be seen, and not heard.  Breakfast is always quiet.  Even loud crunching of toast is a potential distraction, for Mr. Woodcock has already begun work, sketching in pen and ink his latest artistic design.

                It all started with his mother’s wedding dress when he was 16.  His father had died several years earlier.  It was considered bad luck back then for any woman to touch another’s wedding dress, so Reynolds just made it all himself.  And so taught himself that he doesn’t need anybody else to tell him what works and what doesn’t.

                Yes, an elite fashion designer has an appreciation for the female form.  Reynolds does, but he’s also, in his own words, a confirmed bachelor.  He allows certain young women into his life, but as soon as they start being assertive, or telling him what to do, or try to change his routine in any way, they’re out.  Too much trouble.  Obviously, he’s never married or had any children, nor would he consider doing so.  Until Alma (Vicky Krieps) came along.

                At first, he did for her what came naturally to him:  fitted her for a dress.  But he was infatuated with her form, and for a while she became someone he could not live without:  lover, yes, but really more of a Muse.  She inspired him, and that meant more to him than any physical tryst.

                Daniel Day-Lewis’ intensity is a natural for this role.  And the haunting, lilting musical score of Jonny Greenwood just adds to the climate of buttoned-up snobbery passing for competence.  The crises come when Alma wants to do something normal, like cook for him, or go dancing with him.  He doesn’t do normal.  He just does what he does:  make designer dresses.  Every waking minute.  The only time he really got vulnerable with her was when he was sick, when he at last allowed her to mother him.

                It really feels more like a play (and still could be).  There’s a lot of dialogue, very little action, and long periods of strained silence.  Most viewers will not find it very amusing.  But the intensity if palpable.  Even if a bit esoteric.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association