Daniel Day-Lewis sews up his brilliant acting career
Day-Lewis, Anderson weave story in ‘Phantom Thread’ to exacting standards
“Whatever you do, do it carefully.” So says a character in “Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s sneakily terrific film. But it could just as well be Anderson talking to himself, about an expertly made movie in which everything falls perfectly into place, even when it may seem it won’t.
The film is also notable for being (supposedly) Daniel Day-Lewis’ last role, as he has announced his retirement. Let’s hope that’s not the case because, as persnickety dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, he’s as obsessively brilliant as ever.
Anderson — no stranger to obsessive brilliance himself — last worked with Day-Lewis on “There Will Be Blood,” a genuine masterpiece. At first glance the films seem as if they couldn’t be more different; “There Will Be Blood” aims to be an epic and succeeds, while “Phantom Thread” exists in a smaller, morepersonal world.
But there are a lot of similarities, the most obvious being a fanatical dedication among the characters Day-Lewis portrays. With Daniel Plainview, it’s the drive to be rich and powerful — to become an oil man. With Reynolds it’s the need to create, to his own exacting standards, beautiful dresses.
If you’re making a movie about someone with exacting standards, Day-Lewis is your man. Yet what’s so exciting about Anderson and Day-Lewis’ collaborations is that while the actor is always superb, they’re very much the director’s movies. They feed off of one another, creating collaborative works that show off each other’s strengths.
Meanwhile, not to be outdone, Vicky Krieps stands toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis, giving a performance of quiet (and sneaky) strength; she’s outstanding.
The film begins with Reynolds and his sister and business partner, Cyril (Lesley Manville, also exceptional), conspiring to rid Reynolds of a woman, apparently for the sin of offering him a pastry he doesn’t like the looks of. (It looks delicious.)
He heads off to the country and stops at an inn for breakfast. A giant breakfast. Taking his order is Alma (Krieps), who memorizes the order, gets it right and immediately wins Reynolds over. This results in dinner and a trip back to his home, where his method of seduction, such as it is, involves taking her measurements and reporting them to his sister. Reynolds is clearly smitten, which is to say he’s found a new muse. Alma moves in, and naturally things change.
From there the film threatens to be one of those once-he-wins-her-he’sdone-with-her romances, but come on. With this crowd? There’s a lot more to it than that.
Sure, some of the details of their relationship come from that source, but there’s so much more to it than that, a fresh spring of inspiration. There’s a scene in which Alma’s buttering of toast — the knife scraping across the crispy bread — that plays like torture; Reynolds can barely endure it. It’s disturbing, worrisome — and hilarious.
Reynolds, if it isn’t obvious, is maniacal when it comes to detail, a control freak of the first order. An army of women march in every morning to cut, sew and give physical form to his musings and drawings. (Day-Lewis, of course, studied with a designer and created a dress himself, which his wife, the director Rebecca Miller, has worn. Of course he did.) Alma marches with them, but makes sure clients know she lives in the house. Where does she fit in? She may be Reynolds’ soul mate (or maybe not), but the icy Cyril is obviously just as important in his life, if not more so.
But Alma is surprising. There is a resolve in her that Reynolds is not used to dealing with — nor is Cyril. She is indeed his muse, and also his madness, and will not be ignored nor cast aside. The movie takes a kind of gothic turn by degrees — it sneaks up on you and before you know it, it’s arrived. And it’s immensely satisfying.
In other hands, maybe not so much. But Anderson modulates the tone and the details with expert care. And, of course, there’s Day-Lewis.
One last time.
Reach Goodykoontz at bill.goody email@example.com. Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. Twitter: @goodyk.
Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis star in “Phantom Thread.” LAURIE SPARHAM/ FOCUS FEATURES ; ILLUSTRATION BY AUDREY TATE/USA TODAY NETWORK; GETTY IMAGES
Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps star as a dressmaker and his muse in “Phantom Thread.”