Though perhaps deluded, I'd like to think I put as much effort into an essay as Daniel Day-Lewis' Reynolds Woodcock devotes to making a dress in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread."
This is the sort of person you want doing your heart operation, piloting the airplane you're on, or teaching your kid. He's the real deal, and suffers for it, too. The maladies of obsessive genius are many. But the inherent reward is matchless, with the added benefit, aside from financial remuneration, of almost having a right to the arrogance you exude, if so inclined.
Welcome to Mr. Woodcock's world, a special place of understated elegance based in a multi-storied townhouse in an exclusive section of London, early 1950s. Therein, adhering to a strict schedule and regimen, the couturier extraordinaire plies his trade with notable aplomb, concurrently frightening and winning the awe of the several dressmakers who see his legendary fashions to fruition. He prances, he nods, he sits with tea, and pontificates to adulating devotees — the carriage trade, dignitaries and the occasional princess arriving by Rolls Royce or Bentley.
Ah, tis a fine life, I tell you, and as I watched Reynolds Woodcock's story unfold, I could almost taste those cream-filled scones he sustains himself with, often following a hearty breakfast that, if appearing on an American diner menu, would have the word "lumberjack" in its description.
Yet his relatively trim figure belies the copious quantities of rich morsels with which he treats himself, as if compulsory to his station.
But don't ever upset the applecart of his buttoned-down routine. Imaginary but nonetheless ubiquitously placed throughout the manse are signs reading, "Shh! Genius at Work." Acting as the enforcer of decorum and order in this magical laboratory from which haute couture emanates is sister Cyril. Played exquisitely by Lesley Manville, she is business manager, social secretary, chief confidante and all other things that unmarried sisters become to bachelor dynamos after Mama has gone to her reward. Only she can delve under Reynolds' skin.
Of course, the quality of Day-Lewis' characterization earns the very same, goes-without-saying plaudits inevitably used to describe any role the Great Streep tackles. It's a given, and I don't want to seem like a 21st century-version of the 1940s bobbysoxer overwhelmed by Frankie, though that might be an improvement. But the fact is that your curmudgeonly, oft jaded film critic is impressed yet anew by this thespian in his supposedly last performance. While immediately convinced he is Woodcock, I still couldn't help but study the magnificent process.
All of which might make you think that there can be no match to his total immersion into character; no other important being to go toe-to-toe in full dueling banjos mode to pry out that inner-being. Yet, one should be reminded that long before the likes of Freud, Jung and Henry James dallied in the id and ego, and way before DNA branded the ethnocentric you, playwrights were lifting rocks off the swirling snakes of our resultantly exposed subconscious. And more often than not the character doing the lifting was a love interest.
So, it only figures that Woodcock, rich, famous and relatively happy, must have his world torn asunder by that missing component: the comely one that would challenge his confirmed bachelorhood, find his vulnerability and bring out the real man in him, or something like that.
Thus, in a sly variation of Henry Higgins' Eliza Doolittle, enters stage right ingénue Vicky Krieps as Alma, the waitress up to the task of humbling for his own good, whilst concurrently and paradoxically aggrandizing, the great man.
Love — it's doubtlessly the greatest dramatic mechanism ever invented. Mercurial, confounding and agonizingly bereft of rules, it is a charity gift to mediocre playwrights and the afflatus supreme for gifted ones. Belonging to the latter category, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson mines, surfaces, mulls and causes to confound a plethora of the emotions unleashed when Cupid decides to play havoc with two souls.
As if witnessing a great sporting event or chess match full of psychological drama and strategy, we pull up our chairs and commence our oohing, aahing and impassioned rooting, the odd difference being that we're hoping both participants win. We worry about the potential stumbling blocks, from displays of overweening ego to not shutting lights or squeezing the toothpaste tube egregiously.
Maybe they should, maybe they shouldn't, back and forth it goes as we all along hope some byproduct, lightning bolt of wisdom will lend new insight into the ritual.
In other words, if wishing to play a practical joke on that anti-intellectual brute of an unshaven uncle who rarely leaves his couch, family-size bag of potato chips and six-pack of beer while burly men on TV try to cause each other concussions, you tell him to see this film — and then run.
Leaning just this side of arthouse, "Phantom Thread" stitches excellent writing, fine direction, extraordinary acting and a superbly realized milieu into a grand and fully satisfying quilt of amusing commiseration.
"Phantom Thread," rated R, is a Focus Features release directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville. Running time: 130 minutes
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