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Phantom Thread’ Weaves A Unique Love Story

Daniel Day-Lewis claims this will be his last film as an actor

Photo caption: Vicky Krieps plays Alma to Daniel Day-Lewis's Reynolds Woodcock in Paul Thoma...

Photo credit: Focus Features

Vicky Krieps plays Alma to Daniel Day-Lewis's Reynolds Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread," about the shifting dynamics in an unlikely relationship.

Companion viewing

"There Will Be Blood" (2007)

"Inherent Vice" (2014)

"The Dressmaker" (2015)

Actor Daniel Day-Lewis claims that once again he plans to retire from acting. If that’s true then “Phantom Thread” is a beautiful film to end a career on.

In 1989, Daniel Day-Lewis exited a theatrical production of “Hamlet” mid-performance never to return to the stage again. That perhaps was his first retirement. After making “The Boxer” in 1997, he stopped acting for five years and took up woodworking and shoemaking.

But Martin Scorsese lured him back in 2002 for “Gangs of New York.” After that film, The Irish Times ran a headline proclaiming “Actor Daniel Day-Lewis Quits Film Acting.” But he came back every couple years for a role (“The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Nine”) and won his third Best Actor Oscar (a record) in 2013 for playing the title character in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Then he went into a four-year acting break before taking on “Phantom Thread.”

I think what we need to understand about Day-Lewis is that he’s a meticulous method actor who so invests himself in his roles that his performances exhaust him to the point that he feels he can never subject himself to that kind of emotional trauma again. Yet as an actor passionate about his craft he keeps getting lured back by juicy parts.

And with “Phantom Thread,” you can easily see what the attraction was, another opportunity to work with fellow perfectionist Paul Thomas Anderson.

A decade ago Day-Lewis and Anderson collaborated on “There Will Be Blood.” That ferocious portrait of greed offers a stark contrast to the elegant grace and quiet airs of their new collaboration, “Phantom Thread.”

Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a well respected and much in demand fashion designer who creates dresses for a few elite clients ranging from high society to royalty in 1950s London. He leads a very ordered life with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville who never has a single hair out of place or is at a loss for a scathing comment). She manages everything in the business from keeping the books to ushering out Reynolds’ paramours when he tires of them. She also ensures that there will be no surprises in his life and that everything will follow an itinerary that is nearly the same every day.

Reynolds comes across as not just arrogant, narcissistic and set in his ways, but also as if he’s borderline Asperger Syndrome because he seems to have a difficult time socializing and interacting with people.

But one day he enters a restaurant and is immediately smitten with a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps who holds her own admirably with Day-Lewis), who anticipates his interest and hands him a note, “For the hungry boy. My name is Alma.” So begins one of the most unlikely and oddly beguiling love stories ever put on film.

I can see how some people might exit the film and feel like nothing happened during the two-hour-plus running time. And on a certain level that’s true because you are dealing with characters that try very hard to keep their emotions contained and even under wraps. But this is a film where Alma’s vigorous buttering of her toast or pouring of tea from an excessively high point above her cup — actions that would barely merit notice in a conventional film — have the impact of a tsunami on the still waters of the Woodcock residence.

Reynolds is genuinely taken by his new muse but she also threatens to disrupt his carefully structured life and drive him crazy. At one point she orchestrates an evening alone at home with him so she can cook him a meal her way, including some asparagus sautéed in butter. When he does not respond with enthusiasm to her efforts, she pushed him to tell her what he really thinks and he does.

“As I think you know Alma, I prefer my asparagus with oil and salt,” Reynolds tells her. “And knowing this you have prepared the asparagus with butter. Now I can imagine in certain circumstances being able to pretend that I like it made this way. Right now I am just admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you have prepared it.”

As played by Day-Lewis with measured restraint barely covering his outrage, the scene comes across as a brilliant piece of cinema. It is probably not what most people would consider riveting action and yet so much is happening in that scene.

That one scene reveals volumes about Reynolds’ character, about the dynamics of their relationship, and about Anderson’s restraint as a director and his exquisite use of dialogue to define a character.

Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview in Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” was a very physical character and one driven by ruthless ambition. Now he and Anderson create Reynolds Woodcock as an almost entirely internalized character that refrains from excessive movement or activity so we have to pay closer attention to the things he does do and say. But both characters are driven; Plainview is driven by avarice whereas Woodcock is driven by a passion to turn his designs into works of art.

At its core, “Phantom Thread” weaves a unique love story about the ever-shifting balance of power in the triangular relationship of Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril. In detailing that triangle, “Phantom Thread” proves to be a showcase of stunning craftsmanship on every level. In some ways the film feels very personal for both Anderson and Day-Lewis who like Reynolds turn their craftsmanship into artistry, work at their own pace, have little patience with what others deem "chic," and who can seem aloof in their own worlds. If this is Day-Lewis' last film (and I hope it is not) then it sums up his career in a sweetly satisfying and intimate way.

Actor Daniel Day-Lewis claims that once again he plans to retire from acting. If that’s true then “Phantom Thread” is a beautiful film to end a career on.

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