People are such insanely complicated creatures. This is what brings people back to cinema and what keeps the artform fresh. There will never be an end to the stories you can just tell about people. Two people sharing a life together is the most interesting thing on earth, and you can make movie after movie after movie about just two people, and every single one will be different. Phantom Thread is an achievement on so many different levels, but the one that is sticking in my head is just how well done the characters were. They were truly fleshed out, human individuals, as deep and complex as you and I. The power of good writing and good acting is something that cannot be ignored, and combined with the brilliant score and the masterful directing, Phantom Thread had me smiling in admiration for nearly the entire runtime, simply because it's just a joy to behold a piece of art so beautifully constructed.
At the forefront of course, is Daniel Day-Lewis. Phantom Thread will be his final film, and if the interviews I read with him are any indicator, this is not a frivolous or temporary decision on his part, so his performance here has a certain weight to it that it wouldn't otherwise. He's such a skilled artist, I couldn't help but compare his performance to Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront which I recently saw, just because both of them have such a naturalness to them. Every single gesture, movement, intonation, all lend themselves to the character. Not a single movement is wasted or pointless, he isn't moving from one line of dialogue to another, he is living and breathing the character of Reynolds Woodcock. Woodcock is a fascinating character, who clearly has a very long, storied past that has brought him to where he is today. We get small glimpses into what his life has been, but for the most part, we're focused on who the man is today. He's insanely charming on the surface, and very good at what he does. Much like watching a great film, there is a joy to be had watching someone do something they are incredibly good at, which is why this role is so perfect for Daniel Day-Lewis. We watch Reynolds work superbly at his craft of dress-making, and simultaneously we are watching Daniel Day-Lewis embody this man, thus watching two people at once who are at the pinnacle of their field. I would watch this movie again in an instant if only so I could just study Daniel Day-Lewis the entire time and admire how good he is at what he does.
It would be remiss of me to not mention the performance of our female co-stars, Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps. Cyril and Alma are two crucial parts of the film, and the strength of both their characters in the face of a man like Reynolds is what makes it so fascinating. Cyril, Reynolds sister, essentially managers her brothers life as he sees fit, making sure he isn't too distracted, to make sure that he can do his work. She is not subservient though, multiple times she proves herself to be Reynolds equal. No, what she does is out of love, out of simple admiration for her brothers immense skill, and out of a desire to see him happy. Though their relationship is a strange one, they are still siblings who very clearly love each other and love being around each other. And Alma, the center of this film, the enigma which drives things forward, is portrayed expertly by Vicky. From the beginning Alma is different than Reynolds other girls, finding issue with some of his habits that the others mindlessly went along with. But this isn't a film about gaining power within a relationship, it's a film about what people become in a relationship. Early on we hear that Reynolds needs silence at breakfast so that he can concentrate and start the day off right. Alma doesn't know this and loudly butters her toast and pours her tea, upsetting him. In a later seen, without much fanfare, we see Alma silently buttering her toast, having learned what Reynolds likes. This to some would be a sign of submission, but what we also see later is Reynolds talking at breakfast ordering complicated dishes to be served so that he can enjoy them with his sister and with Alma. The two take on parts of each other without even noticing or understanding why, and as the movie progresses they become further entangled with each other, sometimes resulting in negative consequences, but it's something that inevitably happens in any successful relationship. Alma is a powerful, strong character, but so is Reynolds, and together they are even stronger. It takes a lot of guts and talent for someone to match up so directly with a man like Daniel Day-Lewis, but Vicky is up to the task , doing so almost effortlessly. She is truly a delight to watch.
The richness of the performances however, was enhanced and complemented by the brilliant, beautiful, enchanting soundtrack. Composed by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead fame, who is now a frequent Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator, the soundtrack is absolutely, stunningly gorgeous. It consists of mostly piano and violin, matching up perfectly with the time period that the film takes place in, and I have to say that it completely swept me off my feet. So many directors today try to make soundtracks that people don't notice, tracks that add to the atmosphere of a film without ever really coming to the forefront and being something that the audience notes upon. This approach works sometimes of course, you don't always need a soundtrack to pop like this one does, but so often it's done out of habit and not because it's the best idea. In The Mood For Love frequently uses it's music to establish tone in a very obvious and noticeable way, making it as much of a character as any of the people in the movie, and here in Phantom Thread it's used in a very different, yet very similar way. The piano drifts between haunting and beautiful, whisking the audience off their feet and putting them into a whirlwind of unexpected emotion, frequently taking the spotlight while the actors emote, engaging in silent exchanges that let the characters breathe and be themselves. Even including Daniel Day-Lewis' performance, it is maybe my favorite part of the movie, and I never listen to movie soundtracks, but this I will frequently listen to in my free time, due to both it's beauty and how it now connects me to the emotions I felt watching this film.
Paul Thomas Anderson of course at this point needs no one to introduce him. He has created some of the best movies of the 21st century, including his previous collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, and here in Phantom Thread I honestly think he's outdone himself. The visual language he employs is almost the opposite of how I spoke of the soundtrack, by which I mean it isn't something that you immediately take note of, because it just works. It seamlessly folds into the background, manipulating the audience in subtle ways that aren't flashy, obvious, or specifically "interesting". To partially paraphrase Roger Deakins, cinematography should never draw attention to itself to just say "look at how good I am at composition!". Every single shot should be expressing something important in how it is presented, how it's put together, what we see and what we don't and PTA is an obvious master of this. Every frame speaks volumes, but does so in a way that your subconscious understands before you do, which of course is why it works so well. There is a softness to the entire film, the lightning is never too harsh, or too bright, or too dark. It illuminates without blinding, always showing what needs to be shown. If I had to use a single word to describe how the film was shot, it would be "patiently". The film is slow, not in a boring way, in a comfortable way, in a way that feels like a carefree day basking in the not-too-bright and not-too-warm sunlight of a long, spring day. It is a comfortable beauty.
Writing about this movie makes me want to see it again. It is such a joyous thing, so well made and clearly a labor of love for many of the people involved in making it. No one involved in this project really needed to prove themselves at all, but regardless they went all out in the creation of this masterpiece. Even thinking about it fills me with this feeling of warmth, the combination of the genius acting by all involved, the soundtrack, and the directing, it simply makes me glad to see it. The complexity of it lingers in my mind, nagging at me, I cannot shake it. And I don't want to, I want it to stay with me and affect me, I want to learn from it and grow from it, and I believe that I will, for Phantom Thread is a film I'll revisit again and again, each time basking in the glow of the experience.