Phantom Thread, in the most laughably on-the-nose casting we’ve seen this year, stars Daniel Day-Lewis as an obsessive artist who has difficulty separating his work from his personal life. The renowned method actor best known as President Lincoln may be playing his retirement performance a bit closer to home, but he’s certainly playing it no less well. Phantom Thread is a beautiful character portrait that oozes with honesty and authenticity.
Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a dress maker serving royalty and the social elite. Wealthy, fastidious, and obsessed with his work, he draws inspiration from his romantic interests, many of whom become his models. The pattern of his life is disrupted when he meets Alma, a strong willed woman whose presence forces him to reevaluate his assumptions about himself. The two embark on an unorthodox courtship which some viewers might find objectionable.
For starters, there’s the age discrepancy. Daniel Day-Lewis is 60 years old and his co-star, Vicky Kreips, is 35. The ages of their characters is never overtly stated, but the gap feels wider than that on-screen. Alma is working as a waitress when he discovers her and she behaves with the shyness and insecurity of youth. Indeed, the initial spark of their romance is due in part to the feelings of affirmation she experiences through the interest of the assertive, more established Woodcock (though their relationship quickly grows beyond that).
Once Alma moves in with him at his extravagant home, things get more complicated, and some might say “unhealthy”. Woodcock is fickle with his affections – attentive one day and distant the next. Intolerant of deviation from routine and certainly unwilling to compromise in any aspect of his life, he is a domineering and controlling figure. Alma has little agency in this relationship, a fact which clashes with her obstinate personality. The way she confronts this unequal power dynamic (and Woodcock’s reaction to it) is creative and unusual, and it will alienate some even as it endears others.
The genius of Phantom Thread is that it is neither praises nor criticizes its characters, but instead portrays them honestly. It doesn’t present a problematic coupling in order to critique such things, nor does it portray that coupling with tenderness in order to drown out the naysayers who would no doubt describe it as “toxic”. It merely depicts two flawed individuals trying to make their relationship work. Whether you approve of their choices or not, you can’t help but feel the connection they share.
Phantom Thread won’t be for everyone. It’s soft charm would be lost on anyone unwilling to endure some ponderous pacing and no small dosage of stuffy propriety, but for anyone weary of the standard romance narrative it provides an unexpected, and oddly endearing change of pace. Featuring fantastic performances and a marvelous score, Phantom Thread is a suitable place for Daniel Day-Lewis to end his illustrious career.