Phantom Thread directed by, and importantly photographed by, Paul Thomas Anderson, features incomparable multi award winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis in his final and perhaps most masterful role on screen as Reynolds Woodcock, the highly-strung London couturier of the House of Woodcock.
Reynolds Woodcock’s fashionable establishment is all about dressing top notch society women to showcase their beauty or best assets by wearing his clothes. One thing to know about him is that he cannot bear to begin his day with confrontation. Peace and quiet above all, is required.
This is a portrait of an introverted quiet creative meticulous man who really needs to embrace change and learn how to go forward from being obsessively controlling, that is if he really wants to fly high.
In the multi-tiered classically designed townhouse inside and out in the fashionable part of London where he both lives and works, Reynolds Woodcock is kept busy day and night observing his own rules.
Like most creatives I know, his work consumes his life and reflects who he is; his attitudes, his philosophies and his passion. Pleasure is a serious business for him; all about edgy design and elegant refinement of intrinsic style, especially if he is to stay ahead of his rivals.
The word style has so many different connotations and can be interpreted in many different ways. In Reynold’s Woodcock’s case it is not about luxury, but quality.
Just like ‘taste’, style is immutable and like it or not, sometimes impossibly chic, despite him having nothing but contempt for the French word.
What does it mean he asks angrily? He’s not interested in being ‘trendy’ but understated, although always up to the minute.
He is conscious about the values and standards he sets, not about the amount of money spent.
For Reynolds Woodcock’s true style is not only way beyond the vagaries of money, fads and trends but also way beyond fancy labels too, although he does get a kick out of hiding messages and words on labels in the hems or seams of his garments.
Don’t Read Any More if you Don’t Want a ‘few’ Spoilers
This is a movie quite unlike any other you will have ever seen, fluctuating from being euphoric to being desperately sad, with a great deal of wicked and wonder in between.
The director takes charge and with considerable skill frames and produces every scene using sublime craftsmanship.
Whether we are looking through peep holes in doors or invading the inner sanctum of the fashionable salon where models glide up and down wearing the most stunning 50’s style costume, we cannot help but become mesmerized by the beauty and vision of it all.
The musical score aids and abets us on a quest to immerse ourselves in period and place. Close up profiles of Daniel Day-Lewis are breathtaking, quite exquisite. He is achingly sensitive in this role, which once again presents him as the committed professional in the craft of acting.
We follow Reynolds Woodcock from drawing his ideas on paper at breakfast, then crafting them himself in calico, before carefully choosing the fabric to bring the garment to life.
Then he has his workers cut and hand sew the seams and hems until the final product, which he critiques himself in regard to form, line and style, with a true craftsman’s eye.
It’s no surprise to know Daniel Day Lewis, who retired after making this movie, spent time working in a couture establishment beforehand. It has been his practice to learn as much as possible about the type of character he is to play throughout his great career in film.
It is all about getting to know what does go down every day in a place where from vision to drawing from pattern to making the choice of textile, a true couture boutique is overseen by the creative mastermind behind it.
I have to say I loved this aspect of the film, having worked for three years myself in a small couture boutique in Sydney in the 80’s where the female designer/cutter was one in a million, and a small team helped bring her ideas to fruition.
Here Reynolds Woodcock is working with a small dedicated team of talented seamstresses in the workshop, all of whom are able to bring his clothes from the genius of his mind and imagination, into the realm of reality for the high-end clients who sweep into his ‘house’ with their entourage and demand his personal attention.
They don’t know it, but Reynolds Woodcock has nothing but contempt for their grovelling; his disgust for one who wears his garment in public when she is drunk is revealed memorably in one extraordinary scenario, that will leave you gasping at its audacity.
On a daily basis, when he is feeling overwhelmed Reynolds spends time out in the country with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who manages her brother’s daily affairs and the day to day running of the House of Woodcock.
It is on one of these excursions leaving the night before her, he sees a young waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) in a local hotel dining room. He instantly sees in her a beauty and quality of style she does not know she has and finds he immediately he wants to encourage it to emerge.
The next morning at breakfast, he flashes his most beautiful smile and invites Alma to dinner. She succumbs to his considerable charms, not knowing her life will now change forever.
This is not a new experience for Reynolds Woodcock. Having been taught his craft by his Russian mother and setting up his now famous ‘house’ with his sister, he regularly has a ‘muse’ living in house, on which he models his latest collection.
After a while however, they all seem to pale into insignificance and become grasping, eager for small compliments from the master as gradually their ‘fashionable’ time in his house and at his table, comes to an end. Finally they are shown the way to their exit by Reynold’s sister.
Taking on Alma however will very different for them both. Right from day one she is inwardly a very strong woman who doesn’t play games, but having arrived in a house of rules discovers she will have to change ‘the game’. It is a fine performance by Vicky Krieps, a Luxembourg actor who lives in Berlin; she’s a perfect foil for Daniel Day-Lewis, not intimidated at all by the master.
I could wax lyrically about this movie for a long time. But I don’t want to give out too many spoilers, it’s a movie to savour. It may also be very disturbing, at least for some from my generation, who grew up with men ‘in control’, at how close to the bone in so many ways it will be.
At the time women wanting to stand up for themselves had to fight all sorts of impulses just to survive, and Alma, and eventually Cyril find, they will both have to achieve a compromise position if they want to continue to work and live with Reynolds Woodcock into the future.
The richness and beauty of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is at the essence of this movie; the subtlety and substance he gives what is essentially a very sad character, through an intense emotional performance that comes from deep within his own heart and soul, is both impressive and extraordinarily beautiful.
I would be not surprised if it took him some time to recover himself personally afterwards, having worked with creatives all my life.
Personally, I believe Daniel Day-Lewis should pick up the Best Actor Academy award – his performance slowly and exquisitely exudes the ‘joy in intensity’ and great style.
Style expresses a general truth… or defines a moment or a state of mind. It says so much about who we are and incorporates thinking too. Style is not something you can just go out and ‘buy’, especially if you want people to believe it is really all about you.
The costumes in Phantom Thread have also been nominated for an award and there would be few woman in the world today who would not want to wear the glorious dresses Reynolds Woodcock of the House of Woodcock makes for the love of his life Alma and his clients, just once.
They are all exquisite garments that take them into the realm of feeling not only beautiful, but also very gracious and special; the aim of every very fine couturier.
At Palace Cinemas and other cinemas around Australia on February 1, 2018.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018