Movie Review: “Phantom Thread” Takes Its Time Exploring The Nature Of Relationships

“The acting, direction, production design, costumes, and score are all first-rate. Only the plotline would seem to have benefited from a bit more substance.”


Set in 1950s London, Reynolds Woodcock is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.

Billed as the last acting performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom Thread” wafts into wide release later this January. The film previewed in Beverly Hills last November – in time for this year’s Oscar consideration, where it is almost certain to be in contention for several awards.

But is this really the last role for Day-Lewis? In the 1980s, Richard Harris famously declared that he was retiring, only to come back again and again in classic films such as “Unforgiven,” “Gladiator,” “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and the first two “Harry Potter” movies. He told an interviewer that although he indeed planned to retire, he just couldn’t say no to the juicy roles he continued to be offered.

So it may be with Day-Lewis. Certainly, directors, audiences and film critics will be watching with earnest in the months and years ahead. Day-Lewis is only 60, after all. For actors (maybe even some of the rest of us), that is only middle age.

Onto the film. Alfred Hitchcock is quoted as saying that, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” Personally, I can’t decide whether or not director Paul Thomas Anderson subscribes to that theory. Several times during the screening, I wondered if some sections of “Phantom Thread” could have been excised to greater dramatic effect.

The artfulness and sense of period in “Phantom Thread” reminded me of Tom Ford’s two films as a director (“A Single Man,” and “Nocturnal Animals”). Ford, I think, is a director that does just as good a job as Anderson at evoking a time gone past, but is better at getting to the point – and with equal subtlety.

The acting, direction, production design, costumes, and score are all first-rate. Only the plotline would seem to have benefited from a bit more substance. Hence, the two-hour, ten-minute runtime feels a few scenes too long.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays an old-school fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock. His enduring love interest throughout most of the film is Alma, played by Vicky Krieps. When the two first meet, Woodcock casually indicates that he is a confirmed bachelor – and so the dance begins. Lesley Manville as Woodcock’s sister, Cyril, plays a pivotal role in the intriguing love triangle of a sort.

We see early on that Woodcock is a peacock – his clashing raspberry socks show up more than once in the film and his morning grooming routine is nothing if not fastidious. Nonetheless, he is a very accomplished peacock, as his horde of female clients and an ephemeral procession of lovers would readily attest.

In a sense, the film is a clinical analysis about two childlike people. It is tempting to say that Reynolds and Alma have a complicated relationship – and that would certainly be true. However, it’s probably fair to say that we all do with each other. Ultimately, the particular nature of the complications between Reynolds and Alma is what makes the story interesting.

For example, the film takes a leisurely look at the seemingly integral co-dependency of romantic relationships, which can take many shapes and forms. As the two lovers spend more time together, they become increasingly aware of each other’s blemishes relative to their own needs. Perhaps the great revelation in “Phantom Thread” is that Mr. and Mrs. Woodcock have gained a deeper understanding than most.

I will close with what may seem like a crude reference to another two-hour, ten-minute film – especially considering the art-house nature of “Phantom Thread” – but I’m going with it anyway. In the movie “Tombstone,” Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp spend the last few moments together in a sanatorium as Doc lies in a bed, Slowly dying from tuberculosis. Earp confesses to Holliday that all he ever wanted was “just to live a normal life.” To this Doc wisely responds, “There’s no normal life, Wyatt. There’s just life…now get on with it.”

So it is with “Phantom Thread.” There is no normal life for these two fascinatingly flawed people. Given those stipulations, it is a story that perhaps comes as close to a Hollywood happy ending as an art house film can hope for.

In theaters Friday, January 12th


Thomas Tunstall

Thomas Tunstall, Ph.D. is the senior research director at the Institute for Economic Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the principal investigator for numerous economic and community development studies and has published extensively. Dr. Tunstall recently completed an original screenplay and delivered a TED Talk dealing with sustainable community development in the wake of shale oil and gas development. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Economy, and an M.B.A. from the University of Texas at Dallas, as well as a B.B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin.
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