Lyric movie review: ‘Phantom Thread’ offers darkly nuanced images of romanticism, obsession

Nick Botkin

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicki Krieps adorn the poster for "Phantom Thread."
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” is an original and nuanced tale of relationships and romanticism in 1950s London. (Photo courtesy of Focus Pictures).

Romantic obsession. A dapper protagonist. 

Sounds like clichés run amok. 

Ad

But “Phantom Thread” is anything but.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie is replete with romanticism and desire, with characters who express ideas of love and longing very differently. Unlike movies high on grand monologues and pompousness, subtlety reigns.

Reynolds Woodcock, played with great nuance by Daniel Day-Lewis, is a coteur icon in 1950s London.  Woodcock creates dresses for members of London’s beau monde. Woodcock runs his coteur house with the help of his coldly pragmatic older sister, Cyril, played by Lesley Manville.

Woodcock is obsessed with order in all facets of his daily life. This is reflected in numerous scenes, including one in which his employees march up a staircase in perfect precision. All are attired in white, reflecting a certain conformity and purity.

“I cannot begin the day with confrontation,” Woodcock says. “I simply do not have time for confrontation.”

In a true Romantic fashion, Woodcock is also obsessed with his dead mother. Said dead mother had a strong influence on his career choice. Cue Sigmund Freud. Some years before, Woodcock even made a dress for his mother’s second marriage, with Cyril’s help. At one point, in the present, Woodcock tenderly notes that it is “comforting to think that the dead are watching over the living.”

The heart of the story, however, comes when Woodcock meets Alma, a waiter in a small café in an English country town. She is of indeterminate nationality. This adds to the sense of the unknown, which the movie plays to the hilt. Woodcock asks Alma to dinner and a tumultuous romance is born.

Woodcock is reserved, often retreating into bouts of melancholy, while Alma is overtly demonstrative of her affection, even cooking dinner for Woodcock at one point. This results in Woodcock’s wrath. Alma also serves as a foil, addressing Woodcock’s own vulnerabilities overtly.

“I think you are only acting strong,” Alma says.

However, significant issues have been left unresolved, perhaps deliberately. It is not until halfway into the movie that he is able to express affection for Alma.

Ad

“I am certain I was never meant to marry,” Woodcock says firmly. “Marriage would make me deceitful.”

Cue the irony police. Especially given that Woodcock marries Alma, resulting in another round of tensions, much of which is implied on the screen. This again reflects the power of things unsaid. I will not reveal the ending but to say that it is both twisted and promising.

One of the movie’s greatest strengths is the conflict between sister Cyril and love interest Alma. Both strive to hold Woodcock’s attention. After Woodcock falls ill for reasons I will not disclose, a doctor addresses Alma as “Mrs. Woodcock,” to which Cyril also responds. Both want to care for Woodcock with a certain fervency, which is replete with Oedipal implications.

Should you watch it? Yes. 

I felt the movie was strong overall. Anderson nicely deviated from the formulaic laziness that has been rampant as of late, offering nuanced and three-dimensional characters on the screen. However, I would have liked to see more about Cyril and Woodcock’s relationship, as well as the loss of their mother. However, Anderson is a master of subtlety and it works. And as Alma proclaims in apropos fashion, “everything is a game.”

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson.

Genre: Drama/crime

Starring: Daniel Day-LewisLesley Manville, Vicky Krieps

Release date: Jan. 19, 2017 at the Lyric Cinema.

Running time: 130 mins.

Fun fact: According to IMDB, the name Reynolds Woodcock was the result of a joke suggested by Daniel Day-Lewis to director Paul Thomas Anderson.

Now playing at: Lyric Cinema

Collegian reporter Nick Botkin can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com. His Twitter handle is @dudesosad.