“Phantom Thread” is missing a key piece of its wardrobe
When watching a film directed, written — perhaps just rolling with “created” makes the most sense — by Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s important to note you’re delving into something with more layers than a $2,000 wedding cake. His latest, and allegedly Daniel Day-Lewis’ last (whatever), “Phantom Thread,” is no exception.
The film, set in the high-fashion world of 1950s London, is not so much a costume drama nor a period piece, because to call it either would likely insult Anderson in some way. No, the film so fully inhabits the world it creates it feels Anderson found the means to time travel, took the cast and crew with him, and created another distinct picture in 1950s London.
If “The Master” explored the relationship between student and teacher, “Phantom Thread” tackles romantic entanglements in a more subtle way. I understand, it’s a low bar. Much like Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock sews secret messages into linings of garments, so too Anderson finds ways to slip his meanings into the fabric of his film.
What starts as a deliberately PTA “meet-cute,” goes through the machinations of something darker. I’ve seen it charitably called a “gothic romance,” which I suppose is something an older person says when they’re watching a toxic relationship unfold onscreen. While it’s clear why Day-Lewis is entranced with his latest muse, known to us only as Alma (played absolutely incredibly by Vicky Kreips), it’s less clear why she is drawn to him.
Here lies the problem with “Phantom Thread,” a film which seems to be about both Reynolds and Alma in equal measure, but gives us the full picture about one, and not even scraps about the other. While it’s a terrific study on relationships, why we fight for them and ultimately the sacrifices we make to hold onto them, it fails to justify the existence of its core romance for one of its participants.
Kreips proves to be every bit Day-Lewis’ equal scene after scene, as it became easier to root for Reynolds to get his than to root for Alma to get what she wants. Perhaps that’s because Reynolds, though at times empathetic, spends much of the film as an irritable, rude, condescending asshole. It’s hard to understand Alma’s motivations, and in 2018, it’s frankly not enough to chalk it up to, “a woman in love.” We deserve more, and so does a lead character.
While Reynolds is given much more, whether it be his relationship with his deceased mother (there’s a fucking ghost for Christ’s sakes), his sister Cyril or any of his many mannerisms, Alma is left to our imagination. That’s frustrating, and it’s fair to wonder if her gender is the reason for it.
The great successes of the film, including the set dressings, the fabulous score and the brilliant performances don’t make up for such a glaring omission. The film is still fine, good even, but it’s not a masterpiece. How could it be? It feels as if one of Woodcock’s clients left the studio underdressed.