“I cannot begin my day with a confrontation.” The words are spoken, in a kind of pained half-whisper, by Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s an early indication of the character he plays – with quiet magnificence – in Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant new film Phantom Thread. Reynolds Woodcock is a clothes designer to the high-society ladies of Fifties London. He’s a fastidious perfectionist, a soft-spoken obsessive for whom appearances must be immaculate and unruffled. The smallest deviation from routine bothers him intensely: later on, Woodcock will be distressed to the point of agony to be served asparagus with butter instead of his preferred oil-and-salt.
Confrontation – the thing Woodcock is so set against – is the engine of good drama, as Day-Lewis demonstrated in his last collaboration with Anderson when he played oil baron Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Here was a man who ran at confrontation like it was crude oil spewing from an untapped reservoir.
And yet under its many surfaces of implacable perfection, Phantom Thread is as absorbing – and strange – as anything Anderson’s done. Woodcock makes a habit of secreting intimate messages in the exquisite folds of the dresses he creates, and the film operates along a similar principle of stealth and misdirection.
Woodcock’s trade has given him a creepy connoisseurship of female bodies, and Alma’s is exactly his type
Phantom Thread is a love story, albeit a peculiarly dark one, unpicking the cruelty and impulse to control between two people. Having dispensed with his last lover, Woodcock is taking a break in the country when he meets waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps). She is a tall, imposing handsome woman – Woodcock’s trade has given him a creepy connoisseurship of female bodies, and Alma’s is, Woodcock’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) informs her, exactly his type.
She becomes his girlfriend and his muse as Woodcock installs her in his Mayfair house. The glamour, luxuriantly evoked as a swirl of swoony nightclubs and fashion shows, is seductive, but however gilded her experience, Alma is a kind of prisoner.