It was a full house at the Royal Festival Hall for the preview of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread prior to its general release. Anderson and the film’s Oscar-nominated composer Jonny Greenwood were interviewed by Mark Kermode before the screening with Greenwood invoking the lush string arrangements of Nelson Riddle as a source of inspiration.
Set in 1950s’ London, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) are at the centre of fashion-designing for royalty, socialites and debutants. Woodcock, with more than a passing resemblance to Norman Hartnell, is noted for his icy control over all aspects of his life and work. Whilst staying at a northern hotel he meets a shy young Belgian waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes his muse and lover. His carefully planned life is thrown into turmoil. The film has the look and feel of post-war British melodramas, particularly David Lean’s underrated The Passionate Friends with Trevor Howard and Ann Todd.
As with most of Anderson’s films, music is notably prominent. As well as Greenwood’s carefully constructed score, pieces by Debussy, Fauré, Brahms, Schubert and Berlioz are woven into the fabric of the film.
There are three outstanding performances. Daniel Day Lewis in his film swansong is svelte, fastidious, demanding and obsessive as the controlling Woodcock. His behaviour – and voice – becomes evermore bizarre as he struggles to maintain control. Beneath the tortured male ego, Day Lewis suggests Woodcock’s contempt for the vulgarity of those around him who, nevertheless, guarantee his success. His failing is that he wants a muse rather than someone to share his life. Lesley Manville as Cyril has more than a dash of Mrs Danvers from Hitchcock’s Rebecca as well as some stinging put-downs. Best of all is Vicky Krieps as Alma. Initially, slightly gawky as the waitress, she becomes totally believable as the object of grace and beauty. Beneath the high fashion exterior she suggests a quiet but steely resolve to be herself: “If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.“ As the film progresses their relationship becomes almost sadomasochistic; Anderson’s deft and witty screenplay articulates their perverse and strange relationship in detail.
On one level it is a gorgeous film. Anderson’s cinematography is sensuous with a feeling for colour and texture – a needle bursts through cotton and hems are stitched in ways rarely seen before. The costume designs by Mark Bridges, from classic frocks to spiffy bow-ties, have an incredible attention to sartorial detail – and they inform the characters and make the story believable. Food is savoured throughout and there are some glorious breakfasts. The sound of toast being eaten and tea being poured creates domestic discord, and the making of a mushroom omelette is a crucial point in the narrative.
Greenwood’s music is a major contributor to the sensuous appeal of the film, a varied score with strings and piano to the fore, and the jazz of Oscar Peterson, to accompany scenes such as Woodcock shaving to start his working day, a night ride in his Bristol 405 sports car, to introduce the tragic alcoholic millionairess Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris), and as seamstresses work through the night to repair a damaged wedding dress. It is Greenwood’s most sumptuous effort yet.
The thirty-five piece London Contemporary Orchestra responded with spirit and Robert Ames conducted with a fine timing and coordination, and pianist Katherine Tinker was tireless throughout, while Oliver Coates’s cello solos as the film progressed conveyed an encroaching sense of loneliness.
Phantom Thread will need several viewings to reveal all of its riches. It is not only about the creation of beauty but also obsession and neurosis, and a study of controlling and destructive masculinity that feels very contemporary: an uncomfortable watch but a compelling one.