By Alec Deacon
‘‘Before making the film, I didn’t know I was going to stop acting.’’
Actor Daniel Day-Lewis has had more final tours than Black Sabbath and said never again more times than Sean Connery, however, now it appears he means it. Phantom Thread, Day-Lewis has said, spoke to him in a way that drove his thinking to only one conclusion, the decision that this would be his final curtain-call.
It is perhaps very telling that Day-Lewis should choose the character of Reynolds Woodcock (stop giggling at the back), the aloof protagonist of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, to be his final bow, a difficult man and at times unbearable genius who is absolutely devoted to his craft.
Day-Lewis is of course well known for his obsessive extremes in method acting, which have bordered on the dangerous. While shooting Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis caught pneumonia because he refused to wear modern attire, a warm coat, between takes. No such extremes of acting dedication were needed while shooting the Phantom Thread however, Day-Lewis’ dexterity with a needle does lead one to think he spent six months learning to make clothes by hand before shooting.
Set in 1950s couture London (though it could be Paris), Daniel Day-Lewis plays master dress-maker and designer Reynolds Woodcock, at the House of Woodcock, which he runs with his sister Cyril, played by Academy Award Nominee – Leslie Manville. Their relationship is more mother and child at times as opposed to sister and brother, ‘‘don’t pick a fight with me…’’, Cyril (Manville) says over breakfast, ‘‘…or you’ll end up on the floor’’. Reynolds (Day-Lewis) is very much the spoiled child with a great gift, however the gift comes at a price, in order to create these works of art in cloth he must have a muse.
Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps), a European waitress working at a quaint hotel by the sea, in actuality – The Victoria Hotel, in Robin Hood’s Bay, Teesside, England, for those so inclined to pay it a little visit and sit at the same window as DDL, while enjoying a sumptuous breakfast and cup of tea. Indeed breakfasts play a pivotal role in Phantom Thread, pay attention at these early morning meals and the days tone will be very evident. As it happens Day-Lewis’ breakfast by the sea is lavish beyond belief, he is in a good mood of course, which happens to coincide with the appearance of Alma (Krieps). When Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) orders ‘‘…sausages’’ you know it is love at first sight.
Unfortunately it is not to last, as all children with a new toy, Reynolds (Day-Lewis) eventually tires of poor Alma (Krieps) and is need of a new muse or he will not be able to create a new work. However this lady is not for being moved, as Cyril (Manville) has done to her predecessors. Racked by superstitions and the loss of his mother, Reynolds’ (Day-Lewis) obsession with fashioning the perfect dress for the perfect woman can have no end, for no woman can ever live up to dear mama. Alma’s (Krieps) actions threaten to derail the Woodcock business, destroy the status quo and stop Reynolds’ (Day-Lewis) cycle of creative process, however futile it maybe. What will happen if he cannot continue, if he cannot have another muse to inspire him to strive for the perfect dress? You’ll have to watch the film to find out.
What makes Phantom Thread more personal to Daniel Day-Lewis, than quite possibly any other film he has done previously will have a lot to do with the fact he collaborated with director writer Paul Thomas Anderson on the screenplay. Anderson would right a few scenes, pass them to Daniel, who would make suggestions to dialogue and character motivations and so on. Usually a director allows the actors to find that idea of a character in their heads, which is then not always discussed aloud but with Phantom Thread there is a feeling of that process being used and the thoughts of the characters seem to drift from screen. If you thought DDL lived his rolls before, wait until you see his performance in this.
One cannot talk about Phantom Thread without discussing the clothing of course. DDL’s suits were made by Anderson & Sheppard of Savile Row and with a client like Day-Lewis (whether in character or not), he wanted everything just so. Daniel had his character’s name, Reynolds Woodcock, stitched into the inside of one lapel and his own name on the other. Day-Lewis also insisted his suits be made from authentic period cloth, which meant some items weighing almost double that of a modern garment. The poignancy of the performance becomes even more pronounced when you learn that the blue herringbone coat worn by Daniel in Phantom Thread and produced so authentically by Anderson & Sheppard of Savile Row, ties the character of Reynolds and Day-Lewis together on a deeper level, as father Cecil Day-Lewis, was a client of the very same firm and had a similar coat completed for him.
Phantom Thread feels like a much more controlled and more personal production overall, especially taking in to account PTA had no cinematographer and so had even more to do with the overall aesthetic of imagery. His usual partner in crime, Robert Elswit, who shot six of Anderson’s previous seven films and won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for, There Will Be Blood, was unavailable when the call went out. Some sources who worked on other PTA pictures claimed it may be more choice than circumstance as Anderson has allegedly communicated toying with the idea of doing dual director and cinematography duties for a while.
Speaking of collaborations, one returning figure from the PTA arsenal is Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who has composed the music for each of Anderson’s films since 2007’s There Will Be Blood for which he was cruelly denied an Oscar for a minor musical technicality. So it is with great joy that Greenwood has finally been recognised properly with an Academy Award nom. On this, Anderson’s latest feature, Greenwood’s music appears, maybe a little too strong at times across the majority of the 130-minute run-time, however in light of Greenwood’s disqualification over Blood, perhaps few would blame Anderson for presenting Greenwood’s score so high in the mix.
The score is defiantly lavish but it is beautifully juxtaposed by the subtle performances of Daniel Day-Lewis, Leslie Manville and Vicky Krieps. Phantom Thread is great drama but also hugely funny and so never outstays its welcome. On another level Phantom Thread is about princes in their ivory towers, ghosts of the past haunting the living of the present, it is about love, it is about family and so much more. If this is indeed to be Daniel’s last stand then by god, he has earned it.