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Mixed feelings

Within (and about) 'Phantom Thread,' Paul Thomas Anderson's Oscar-bound period piece.


ON THE BIAS: Vicky Krieps stars as Alma, either muse or irritant to Daniel Day-Lewis' Reynolds Woodcock, in "Phantom Thread."
  • ON THE BIAS: Vicky Krieps stars as Alma, either muse or irritant to Daniel Day-Lewis' Reynolds Woodcock, in "Phantom Thread."

If indeed his starring role as a ruthlessly exacting dressmaker in "Phantom Thread" turns out to be his last, as announced, then Daniel Day-Lewis could hardly have chosen a more appropriate character to inhabit. What a persnickety so-and-so this Reynolds Woodcock is, and how dedicated to his art. One of the first adjectives applied to Reynolds in Paul Thomas Anderson's postwar British drama is "demanding," with Day-Lewis going through the seemingly mundane motions of getting dressed, brushing back his hair back, pulling up his magenta socks and rolling the tops down just a smidge. Routine becomes him, we learn; his mornings in particular require a finicky devotion to predictability. What comes of this bitter peace are some of the world's most sought-after dresses. He does not appear happy, nor satisfied, but perhaps artistically fulfilled.

Day-Lewis, so often referred to as the greatest actor of his generation — debatable, I'd say; only a dozen film roles since 1989 simply isn't much output, no matter how fanatically he commits to his characters — wears Reynolds' high status wearily at first. Then, on a jaunt to the countryside, he meets a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps, a disarming Luxembourger) who captures his eye. His interest seems grounded foremost in pure aesthetics: She looks good moving in clothes. The pure admiration blossoms into something of a romance, and she joins his house as a model and assistant and muse. Yet, in those carefully controlled mornings at the breakfast table, or in his late nights in the studio, she presents as a gadfly, a nuisance — just by showing affection.

Hollywood loves to reward period pieces about imperious male genius, and "Phantom Thread," with its six Oscar nods, plays straight into form. Anderson, who also wrote the (nominated) screenplay, keeps the cast blessedly tight: Lesley Manville as Cyril, Reynolds' sister and business partner, is the other pillar here, in a performance that could be said to have been overshadowed were not she, like Day-Lewis, also nominated for an Oscar. Yet as intimate as it is, the film feels uptight in the first hour, almost plodding with its prestige, despite a nimble, almost chipper score by Jonny Greenwood (nominated as well). Gradually — and largely through the strength and vulnerability and humor of Krieps, who has gone overlooked here — the story loosens up a bit and eventually becomes darker and, by the end, enrapturing.

The phrase that keeps coming up in conversations around the movie, though, is "mixed feelings." Technically, you won't see a finer movie this year; anyone with a love of a craft well-executed will fall hard for the dresses alone, which give off that "Project Runway"-esque sense of vicarious satisfaction as you watch them drawn, cut, sewn and finally modeled. Day-Lewis, as is his wont, crawls into Reynolds and inhabits him fully, if not as a manipulative genius then certainly as an egotist, petrified that the demands of living in the real world will force him off his game.

You might fault the film for its own-sweet-time pacing as well as for its sheer timing. This has been the year of #MeToo in the entertainment industry, and watching a prestige pic about an occasionally domineering older white man in the arts is bound to hit a flat note. Yet offer it this: Few films make more clear just how much emotional and capitalistic labor women put into supporting famous, celebrated men.

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