A Decade at the Oscars: Phantom Thread
53) Manchester By The Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)
54) Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018)
55) Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)
56) The Post (Steven Spielberg, 2017)
57) American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014
This will be the only piece of writing in my A Decade at the Oscars feature that is also a Take 2 review. Phantom Thread is a film with depth and nuance, and it is extremely highly regarded by many within the film world. It is also a film I saw for the first time in a charming but mostly empty cinema and as the third movie I had seen that day, and I was concerned these non-ideal conditions had warped my opinion of it and that I had missed much of the subtlety that makes others idolise the film so much. The truth is, my assessment first time around was correct, and it doesn’t move up my list, instead staying in the lower reaches of my ranking amongst the mediocre historical fare and, as is more apt in the case of Phantom Thread, the films with great ideas at their core, but which don’t cohere in a satisfying way. Thus, whilst it is true to say Phantom Thread has depth and nuance, essential qualities for any great film, what it lacks is the surface level, the enjoyment and believability within which to build those layers of subtlety; the film fails to conjure a dazzling dress to entice us, so why should we care about the secret messages sewn into it?
Much as in my review of Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012) earlier in the week, I find Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance to be a real problem in Phantom Thread. As fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock he is wooden and melodramatic at all the wrong moments. He is as pretentious as you would expect from a man who spent months learning dressmaking in preparation for this role. He is smug and irritating, as though he knows he has done more preparation and thinks his acting is better than anyone else in the room. I find all the same problems here that I found in Lincoln, but the performance in Phantom Thread is just a little less grating, because these mannerisms suit Woodcock far more than they suited Honest Abe. This time around, you feel they are somewhat self-reflexive: Woodcock is just as obsessive as Day-Lewis and the measured smugness fits his character like a glove. The two mould into one, and you almost feel you are witnessing a man playing a caricature of himself, and you inevitably end up taking a dislike to both of them. The intense preparation that Day-Lewis is famous for does bear fruit in its own way here, for it is hypnotic to watch Woodcock at work, taking measurements and drawing sketches in a methodical rhythm. But you have to hope for more from a film’s central performance than just skilful craftwork.
The film follows Woodcock’s life for a time, and explores his relationships with his sister Cyril (an outstanding Lesley Manville) and new young lover Alma (Vicky Krieps, also giving a strong performance despite previously being a relatively unknown actress). It soon becomes clear that the dynamics of these relationships are chess games of control and emotional manipulation and that Woodcock is caught half-way between being a spoilt man-child and being the embodiment of some of the worst aspects of toxic masculinity. Not all films have to have a likable protagonist, but it is certainly true that I grew to despise Woodcock throughout both viewings of the film, finding him to be both ridiculous and repugnant in equal measure. Though I’m sure the film intends this, what it may not intend is for him to be completely outshone by the two women, Manville and Krieps showing Day-Lewis how to act within this world of slightly-surreal period-drama without descending into farcical melodramatics. He is equally outshone by the costuming, set design, cinematography, and score, all of which make the film a joy to look at and listen to and somewhat redeem its many flaws, but if this is to be Day-Lewis’s final role as he so claims, he has gone out not with a bang, but a childish whimper.
Though I think I enjoyed Phantom Thread just a little more second time around because I was able to somewhat look past its glaring faults and focus on its secondary meanings, the ultimate problems still remain. It has a fundamentally weak surface thread, a disappointingly apathetic secondary lining and a pretentiousness that you feel extends from the characters to those making the film, all the way through to the critics who profess to love it. If you can fully commit to this film, suspend your disbelief and go along for the ride, you can find things to enjoy, but for me the film is far too in love with itself and has far too many awful lines delivered by one of the worst cases of Day-Lewis’s overacting to be a truly enjoyable experience.
At time of writing, Phantom Thread is unavailable on any of the major streaming services, but you can rent it on Amazon Prime Video, look out for it on the BBC iPlayer, or add it to your DVD collection!