Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Film Review: Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread is a masterclass in, well, just about everything

There were multiple moments in Paul Thomas Anderson's new film that were so compelling I'd forget to blink and my eyes would start to burn. There were scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson's new film so staggeringly tense I feared I may never be able to stand up and leave my seat again. There are performances in Paul Thomas Anderson's new film so endlessly fascinating that I worried for the future of the profession and whether or not I'd see anything on par with this again. There were moments in Paul Thomas Anderson's new film where I laughed out loud, parts where I held my breath, parts where I had absolutely no idea what would happen next, sometimes even parts where I had no idea what I was actually watching. All of these moments come coupled with a single word: awe.

Needless to say, Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, Phantom Thread, is stunning. It's the kind of film that paradoxically both invites endless revisits to help you identify the film but may never live up to that very first viewing. Watching Phantom Thread is akin to someone you love setting all your senses alight at once, it ticks every single box without breaking a sweat and still lands as one of the most thematically dense films I have ever come to know. The film is funny without sacrificing integrity, dark without losing character, beautiful yet simultaneously oozing horror and devastation. In thirty or forty years time, Phantom Thread will be studied in film courses as one of the most thematically complex yet uncompromisingly enjoyable films ever to be put on screen.

At the risk of this review turning into eight paragraphs of ceaseless hyperbole, let's pause the praise and turn to plot. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a renowned fashion designer living in England. He and his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville) design and make dresses for the culturally elite, with Reynolds' romantic interest and muse changing every year as those around him struggle to cope with his infatuation with routine and perfection. On a visit to the countryside he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress to whom he finds himself immediately drawn. The two develop a romantic relationship and Alma soon moves into the family home, acting as Reynolds' muse and inspiration, only for them to repeatedly clash over what they want their relationship to be.

Phantom Thread essentially comes down to a battle of the sexes, 130 minutes of pure power play as a man and a woman consistently try to gain the upper hand over each other. Anderson's film looks at marriage and at compromise, the struggle of sacrifice and the ineptitude of trying to change someone from who they are. It's heavy going, and the way Anderson's script introduces Alma with little more than sheer giddy likability only to develop her into someone we find ourselves caring for deeply is ingenious. Her refusal to submit to Reynolds' demands, her willingness to turn their relationship into the one that she wants - it's all gripping stuff, and Krieps' performance is on par with the complexity of her character. It'll take multiple rewatches to fully appreciate the depth of her work here.

Day-Lewis is the film's star though, and if this truly is to be his final performance then it's a sensational swan song for the three time Oscar winner. He embodies Reynolds' with a flirtatious sense of wit, rolling insults out of his mouth and clearly having fun doing so - somehow, it may be the comedic performance of the year. As the film progresses Reynolds must shift between complete and total power to overwhelming weakness and submission, and Day-Lewis executes both with sure fire precision. Reynolds is a total blast of a character, as funny as he is frustrating, and it's very easy to imagine most other actors being swallowed up by such a challenge. Not Day-Lewis though, this is a great actor on peak form.

As Anderson's film progresses - accompanied by a score so perfectly orchestrated that, even when listened to in isolation, would still be able to tell this very story - he complicates Reynolds and Alma's relationship beautifully, taking them independently into much darker places. Alma's first real reclaiming of power comes at a price, and it's safe to say it isn't something you'd come across in your day to day marriage, but her willingness to do such a thing feels earned. Anderson spends so much of his first half simply spending time with Reynolds and Alma that their every motive and every intention is fully fleshed out and entirely plausible. We frequently don't know where Phantom Thread is headed, but every time it reveals its short sighted destination we feel stupid for having not already realised it. The film is continuously surprising, and every surprise is wound to perfection.

Phantom Thread eventually culminates with a conclusion more brutal than you'd expect, both physically and thematically, but such a darkness is rooted to the film's core. Even hinting at where Anderson's film finds itself in its final ten minutes would be damaging, but his ideas here and his execution of them are shocking, powerful and staggeringly fascinating. It's the kind of endgame that sends you diving back in to the film again so you can trace the breadcrumbs up the final reveal and begin to appreciate how few other options Anderson has. Phantom Thread is bold, stunning film making in every way; it's one of those films whose every element - direction, writing, performance, soundtrack, editing, production design - all function in clear harmony yet still amount to more than the sum of their parts. All good cinema is art, but Phantom Thread sets its sights even higher than that. Indeed, Anderson's film is more than just art - in fact, it might be something new entirely.

In A Sentence

Led by outstanding performances and Paul Thomas Anderson's thematically explosive script, the darkly funny but wholly captivating Phantom Thread is a timeless piece of dramatic romance that immediately cements its place in the history books.

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