Daniel Day-Lewis can be whatever he likes. He can be Mr. President. He can be a lithe Indian hunter and fighter. He can be a ruthless oil magnate. He can be a merciless butcher. And then he can will himself to retreat to his woodwork, shoe-making, or whatever he does in these times of being away from the limelight. And then, he can announce his retirement from films after director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest outing, Phantom Thread.
And you wonder, what kind of a person is Daniel Day-Lewis. I might be sticking my lapels out here, but in Phantom Thread do you get a glimpse of how a manic-like focused artiste goes about his daily routine. And no, I’m not suggesting that Day-Lewis is anything like the cocky Reynolds Woodcock that he essays here. I’m not even saying he’s eccentric like the dressmaker, whose routine is more dear to him that anything else in the world. But in there somewhere, in the grand, infuriatingly hypnotic movie that the director (who also wrote the story) weaves, is hidden a pattern that must expand, transmogrify, and from there emerge at least a thin veil of how genius must behave. For, Woodcock is a fastidious man, a reputed dress designer for upper class London in the 1950s. He brooks no nonsense from any human being or form. If there’s someone who understands him, fashions her and everyone else’s routine around his predilections, it’s his sister, Cyril Woodcock (Lesley Manville). They live in their magnificent house in London, that also serves as his workshop, where a dedicated and trusted team of seamstresses work under his hawk-eye like supervision.
One of the earliest scenes in the movie is at the Woodcocks’ breakfast table, a time for focused quietude for the dressmaker, as he sips his beverage – note how immaculately the actor pours his refill, the angle of the pot as if measured by a precision instrument, the liquid flowing out straight into the cup with a trajectory that, if we didn’t know Day-Lewis (the actor) better, would have been a CG effort – sitting cross-legged, sketching, mulling, chewing his first meal of the day in misleading calmness; for beneath all that stillness is a roar of creativity, a force that one daren’t interrupt, for what’ll follow is snub or a pointed word jab that’s more painfully effective than any medieval assault weapon. And about to discover that is Reynolds’ latest muse-fallen-out-of-interest, Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), who’s then politely displaced out of the residence. And thus do you know that here’s a man who has no interest in the institution of marriage. “I design dresses”, says he in response to the woman who he will eventually tie the knot with, when she asks him why he hasn’t married yet. She’s Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a waitress at a countryside hotel, which is where Reynolds sees her for the first time. When she takes his order and leaves his table, director Anderson shows us Day-Lewis’ profile. In a second, you realize as does he, that he’s besotted. And when she returns, the window next to his table can’t contain the sunlight that streams in, undoubtedly an optical reflection of his own feelings. And hers too.
From here on, the movie takes us into a gripping, beautifully woven tale of love, of personality clashes, and of darkness that takes us – and Woodock – by surprise and shock. And perhaps, for the last time do we see the sunlight in the frames, now the detailing a reveal of human desire for control, for the rage that lack of status can whip a woman into, and yet a love that’s mysteriously and destructively addictive even as it is disrupting. The interplay between the three characters – the artist, his sister, and his muse – is marvelously disquieting, almost touching a raw nerve of dystopia from Hitchcock and Stephen King, mixing suspense and misery, as we all know what’s happening except for some of the main protagonists.
As with his lead actor, director Anderson’s eye for detail is breathtaking. Every weave, every thread, every scene and the sound therein is masterfully laid out. A quickly cut close up of Reynolds’ fingers show the pinprick wounds and skin-peeled away by hours of abrasion with his tools. There’s an omelet-making scene that’s so beautifully done, every chopping, frying, and sputter on the pan shot and sound-recorded with as much simmering passion as it’s being made, and you realize you want to have an egg too. Just not that one. And in the same scene, there’s no background score later, as a piece of the omelet is put into the mouth of the eater, you can hear every painfully agonizing crunch, every sound as it is masticated, and then, the horrifying sound of it being swallowed. Sound designer Christopher Scarabosio and the rest of the sound team, take a silent bow.
The music score by Jonny Greenwood is mystical, magical, and incessantly haunting. Sometimes, it plays like a 50s-version of piped music, plinking and plonking the piano chords playfully. Other places, it’s swirling, presciently dark. Much like the opening scene where the composer creates disturbingly dissonant sounds, that are actually a character announcement.
Of the cast, Lesley Manville as the sister around the house is superb, her stiff upper lip act emanating a know-it-all force that she uses to step in at a crucial juncture, but later, she just looking at whatever unfolds with a mysteriously detached helplessness.
Vicky Krieps is brilliant, her verbal jousting with Day-Lewis one of the movie’s highlights. From a plain, toast-chomping woman to a lady who figures out how to lay the butter on a crisp bread slice in a manner of delicate tip-toeing – the two scenes done so subtly by director Anderson – to someone who realizes she has to take matters in her own hands if she has to get a foothold in her lover’s life and in society, hers is an act of a rapidly darkening cloud that gathers control of your senses.
And of course, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis. As immaculate as his character’s creations, he’s in masterful form here. His dialogue delivery is gilded in silvery fervor; in a dinner-table scene with Krieps where the buttered asparagus explodes into a mushroom cloud of irreversible darkness and viciousness, his fury and rage is controlled fission, every word he speaks a zinger of emoting. Look at him when he takes his newly found muse to his workshop – his look of eye-brow raised concentration, as he measures her with a tape, precisely, and swiftly, and yet with the delicate finesse of a haute couture auteur – pin in mouth, you’d think he was doing this for years now – and the gentle springing of violins a lovely touch to his act and the scene. He’s scintillatingly good as he realizes that all he loved and kept close to his heart, including his famed routine and solitude, is all but lost. “Her arrival has cast a very long shadow,” he despairs helplessly in front of his sister.
And you hope the actor comes back onscreen. Hope that like Woodcock, he finds another project that is his irresistible and seductive muse to lure him back. In one scene, the actor snaps at Alma when she walks in with a tray of tea while he’s at work. He growls that he doesn’t want tea, and tells her to take it away. She impishly walks out with the tray, teasing him that she’s gone with the tea. To which he retorts, “The tea’s gone, but the interruption’s right here with me.” That the actor himself would cause such a self-realized interruption in his filmography makes it all the more painful. And it’ll be there, right there in the cinema hall with us.
Phantom Thread is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) There’s swear words erased by the Indian certification board, drinking, smoking, and some dark love.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson Running Time 2h 10 min
Writer Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Genres Drama, Romance
Watch the trailer of Phantom Thread here: