By Caleb Fox and Sara Clements
Phantom Thread is an appropriate name for the newest project from director Paul Thomas Anderson; the connection between its main characters is indeed a ghostly, nonexistent link.
The film—which tells the story of the relationship between 1950s London dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and young waitress Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), who becomes his “muse”—is being compared to Hitchcock by some critics. However, the only comparison between Hitchcock’s genius storytelling and Anderson’s latest work is a grand display told in a confined space. The intrigue is lost as Phantom Thread employs an overused narrative in a bewildering tale of toxic love.
The biggest of many problems with the movie stems from its lead couple. As characters, Reynolds and Alma are given little introduction before they are thrown together into the cramped Woodcock household. All that is known about Reynolds (Day-Lewis) is that he is an incredibly unlikeable playboy, who misses his mother, and is angry at everyone and everything around him; Alma has no backstory whatsoever.
The two are obviously a poor match, and the film not once, but twice bashes the viewer over the head with a literal manifestation of their relationship’s toxicity. Even worse, Day-Lewis and Krieps have no chemistry together; not a single spark can be felt between the pair. Watching their love affair slowly unfold is a dull ordeal, and the audience is never given a reason to care about this story.
Day-Lewis’ performance doesn’t descend into the intolerable over-acting he often resorts to in other films (see 1996’s The Crucible for such an example), but he still plays Reynolds like a caricature. Lines such as “there is entirely too much noise at breakfast” are thrown around in a pompous accent that calls to mind an obnoxious and edgy under-graduate arts student who despises anything which disrupts his “creative flow.” He’s extremely unlikable, and never believable as a real character.
Krieps fairs just as poorly. Alma has absolutely no backstory; she simply appears in Reynolds life, treated like little more than a mannequin for the renowned designer to dress. Rather than allow the audience to invest themselves in her, the film makes her more and more unlikable, as her desperate actions to hold onto Reynold’s affection become increasingly outrageous. And Krieps make her unmemorable; her reserved, soft-spoken performance is lifeless and devoid of screen presence.
Anderson’s script is so confusing and poorly written, that if viewers don’t listen closely, they may even miss the link between Woodcock and Lesley Manville’s character Cyril. While the film centres around the tiresome “tortured artist whose work is disrupted by a woman” storyline, the most interesting character turns out to be Cyril, who is given the best dialogue and provides some comedic alleviation from the exhausting twosome, whose dialogue is absolutely cringe-worthy—it will make the audience laugh for all the wrong reasons.
The technical aspects of the film are similarly lacking. The cinematography (which is officially uncredited, but was mostly handled by the director) is a mixed bag. Some aspects of the film such as Reynolds’ lavish home and beautiful dresses are captured well. The tracking shots that follow his inventive process in dress design, the location shots, even the close-ups on his breakfast are all utterly enticing. Anderson is one artist exploring another with tantalizing imagery.
However, other moments such as Reynolds and Alma driving together look so shaky that they’re likely to cause motion sickness. Even worse, some scenes are filmed in such a way that causes confusion for the viewer. At one point, a pot of tea is shown to be poisoned, and two characters are then shown drinking from it. However, only one of them gets sick, and the incongruity which arises from such poorly conceived shots is never addressed. That a film which has received six Oscar nominations could leave so many questions unanswered is inconceivable.
The score, which should normally compliment beautiful cinematography, is also terrible. Composer Jonny Greenwood delivers a soundtrack that at times is bland, like elevator music, and at others is so piercing that the viewer will think their eardrums are going to burst. The score is constantly overbearing, to the point that it distracts the viewer—though this might be a bigger problem if there was ever anything interesting happening onscreen. If this is a stylistic choice it would make sense, as it compliments the brain-busting narrative that it threads through.
Overall, this is the kind of film that makes people think that industry awards care only about boring, pretentious dramas. Viewers who need to see every best picture nominee may benefit from watching this on the big screen, just for the cinematography, but most should stay comfortably at home enjoying a Hitchcock masterpiece instead.
If the same attention to detail was paid to the script as to Woodcock’s designs, this could have been a triumph. However, the film is lacking in the same cohesion and spark as the leads. With its off-putting characters, asinine love story, and technical deficiencies, Phantom Thread is an unentertaining failure that, rather than a custom-made, high-end garment, feels like the cheap, poorly stitched product of a Chinese sweatshop.
(Featured Image: Phantom Thread, Focus Features).