Perhaps the thing that moves me most about this film is that I keep thinking about it.
Its star, Daniel Day-Lewis, completely inhabits his role as Reynolds Woodcock (interesting name, that) a 1950s British fashion designer whose life is his work and who has arranged with the support of his sister, Cyril (the excellent Leslie Manville,) to order his firm entirely to suit his creative and obsessive schedule.
As the film opens, Woodcock has tired of a muse/love interest who upsets his breakfast by making too much mundane, breakfast-type noise. “I cannot begin the day with an interruption,” he declares. Cyril, the enforcer, exiles the woman from the Woodcock townhouse and atelier.
Afterwards Reynolds flees to his country home and — surprise surprise — is enchanted by the waitress who comes to his table at the next morning’s breakfast. The camera and the excellent film score enhance Reynolds’ interest in Alma (Vicky Krieps,) a quiet but quietly direct young woman.
Reynolds courts Alma by fitting her for a beautiful dress (all credit to American costume designer Mark Bridges) and brings her to London as his new muse.
What follows is an increasing battle of wills between the inflexible designer and the woman who inspires his creations but wants to be recognized and loved as her own self. The film functions both as an arid love story and a power struggle.
We’ve seen this before in drama. Yes, “Phantom Thread” is more subtle than Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata.” No, it is not as subtle as Golding’s “She Stoops to Conquer” or George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” And no, Alma is nothing like Eliza Doolittle of “My Fair Lady.”
What is operating here is a 21st century version of a 20th century male-female conundrum and a filmic version at that. Reynolds’ sister and Alma — and the female team who assemble Reynolds’ creations — do not dictate the design aesthetic at the House of Woodcock, but they demonstrate that, without them, it would disintegrate.
The method in which this potential disintegration is demonstrated is extreme and, given the restrained nature of its environment, barking strange. The result is a Gothic resolution of the Reynolds/Alma relationship.
That said, the film is beautiful. Its period-appropriate cinematography is much enhanced by Jonny Greenwood’s musical score. Danial Day-Lewis has said it is his last movie, and yet it shows his talent to such effect that we should hope it is not so. I’d also like to see much more of actress Leslie Manville, whose work as “old so-and-so,” the designer’s sister, is lovely to behold.