‘Phantom Thread’: Daniel Day-Lewis gets to very fiber of a fussy man of fashion

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Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis in “Phantom Thread.” | Focus Features

What a wondrous gift it would be if we learned a film crew had been following around Daniel Day-Lewis on and off for the last 20+ years, with the Great One allowing a documentarian inside his process, his world, his life.

Did he really stay in character as our 16th president during the filming of “Lincoln,” even if he was just picking up a bran muffin and a coffee at craft services? How devoted was he to the whole cobbling thing he reportedly took up during one of his many long breaks from shooting movies? What was it like to hang around with DDL during the filming of “There Will be Blood”?

Alas, an all-access documentary about Day-Lewis is almost certainly never forthcoming — but we will gladly make do with “Phantom Thread,” which is a work of pure fiction but is probably the closest marriage we’ve yet seen of the actor and the character he is portraying.

Reteaming with his “There Will be Blood” director Paul Thomas Anderson (who has given us some of the most original films of the last two decades, including “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “The Master”), Day-Lewis delivers another Oscar-worthy performance as one Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer in mid-20th century London who is perhaps the most famous and adored artist of his kind in all the world.

Reynolds Woodcock! You better be something if you stride through the day with that name.

Like Day-Lewis, Reynolds is a mesmerizing, captivating, mercurial, painstakingly meticulous creative force who moves to the sound of his own inner music, has a very specific (and more than a little eccentric) way of doing things, refuses to be rushed and will not allow outside forces to dictate how he operates.

You are in the presence of genius, and you both know it, so why pretend otherwise?

Anderson shoots and paces “Phantom Thread” almost like a 1950s mystery, and there ARE some dark elements of intrigue in the story — but this is not a Hitchcockian tale of lust and betrayal and murder. It’s a fascinating examination of an obsessive-compulsive, maddeningly self-centered, magnificently talented man who can make women swoon with a mere shift in his gaze, but often acts like a petulant 11-year-old when anyone dares to change his routine or disrespect his couture.

Reynolds has a uniquely (some might say disturbingly) close relationship with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who apparently has given up even the suggestion of a life of her own in order to oversee Reynolds’ business operation. Cyril is the gatekeeper for anyone wishing to speak to Reynolds — and even ushers Reynolds’ girlfriends out of his magnificent house when he has lost interest.

“Where have you gone, Reynolds?” says one woman, who is still living with him but has one foot out the door. “Is there anything I can say that will get your attention back on me?”

In a word: No.

This is the system. Women come and go. Cyril and the work, they’re the constant. Reynolds hunches over his sketchpad and fusses over every stitch of every dress he creates — whether it’s a wedding gown for a beautiful young princess, or a flattering dress for a countess of a certain age.

Meanwhile, Cyril oversees the dozen or so women who work out of the house every day, meticulously hand-stitching his creations. It’s Cyril’s purpose in life to keep Reynolds — well, I wouldn’t say “happy,” but content and focused on his purpose.

And then along comes a seemingly simple waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who is much younger and not particularly well-educated and would seem to be not much more than a passing fancy to keep Reynolds amused.

Ah, but Alma is not to be underestimated. Once she enters Reynolds’ world, he (and Cyril) quickly learn she’s a force in her own right, and she’s not about to go meekly into the night if and when Reynolds loses interest in her. (In fact you might be shocked at the lengths to which Alma will go to stay on, and I’ll leave it at that.)

The attention to detail, the use of certain colors, the lush and vibrant photography of the dresses Reynolds makes and the clothes he wears — they’re honestly breathtaking. (The fashion choice Reynolds makes to indicate his displeasure with Alma after she pulls a surprise on him is brilliant and funny and fantastic.)

There’s an almost hyper-realism to seemingly mundane scenes, e.g., the numerous episodes that take place during breakfast. Reynolds has a voracious appetite, but of course a very particular way of enjoying his poached egg and his scone and his bacon and his Lapsang tea. When Alma scrapes butter onto her toast with great verve and clanks her silverware, Reynolds and Cyril look on with horror, as if she has started banging the pots and pans with a large polo mallet. Does she not understand the genius needs reverence and quiet so he can concentrate on the day ahead?

Daniel Day-Lewis has hinted this could be his last role. Let’s hope that’s not the case — but if it is, he leaves us with one last reminder of his genius. Like Brando, he has the uncanny ability to keep us riveted, whether he’s shouting to the skies or seemingly doing nothing at all.

Because he’s never doing nothing, of course. Like Reynolds Woodcock, Daniel Day-Lewis wouldn’t know how to be uninteresting.


Focus Features presents a film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Rated R (for language). Running time: 130 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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