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Why 'Phantom Thread' is a bad fit as Daniel Day-Lewis' final movie

Vicky Krieps as Alma and Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock in writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's PHANTOM THREAD. (Focus Features)
Published Jan. 17, 2018

Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread is passionless window-shop cinema, each static tableau lovingly arranged for display and easy dusting. Its centerpiece is a mannequin, albeit played by Daniel Day-Lewis, whose gift for keeping anything interesting is seldom so necessary.

Phantom Thread is reportedly the three-time Oscar winner's farewell performance. Pity. That makes this reunion with Anderson, a decade after each peaked in There Will be Blood, doubly disappointing. There isn't blood now; Phantom Thread barely has a pulse.

In fairness, Anderson crafts his movie in the image of Day-Lewis' character Reynolds Woodcock, a fastidious prig draping post-war London's high society in fabulous dresses. Reynolds is meticulous, obsessing over each stitch and fabric shade. He's also mercurial, a petulant, passive-aggressive sophisticate with scant life beyond his work.

There may be companions, women who feel lucky to become Reynolds' living dress form. Not muses; his ego doesn't require that. They are used then discarded, ushered out by Reynolds' stern sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, a study in disapproval). Reynolds seeks only new female canvases, as a shy waiter named Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps) discovers on their first dinner date.

Alma is flattered, nearly seduced by Reynolds' offer to make a dress for her. Then he immediately goes to work, measuring, assessing her body, setting her feelings aside. She apologizes for having small breasts. "It's my job to give you some," Reynolds says. "If I choose to."

Such moments lend Phantom Thread topicality, addressing the way women can be exploited by artists then disposed. There's a measure of revenge in store as Reynolds tires of Alma, later confused by an incredible surrender. Yet any #TimesUp relevance feels coincidental to Anderson's haute couture aesthetic; this movie is too pretty to be angry.

Anderson's craft is likewise subdued, without the layered drama and editing panache fans of Boogie Nights and Magnolia may expect. He's an uncredited cinematographer due to union rules, gliding through Reynolds' precision with hand-held curiosity. Day-Lewis reportedly found humor in Anderson's screenplay that except for one testy line of dialogue escapes me.

Day-Lewis delivers another acutely realized performance, if not the last hurrah his legacy deserves. Day-Lewis is completely invested in Reynolds' tiniest habits and grandest postures, revealing as much about Reynolds through them as Anderson's dialogue.

Phantom Thread can't entirely thwart Anderson's directing gift. An opening sequence of Reynolds and his dressmaking staff beginning their day in the House of Woodcock is brisk, nearly nonverbal exposition. Reynolds' breakfast order flirtation with Alma is slyly paced, making each smug smile and blush count. A dinner fiasco wearing Reynolds' latest creation is a welcome change of pace.

Yet Anderson's movie succeeds only in such episodes, passing flashes of inspiration like those design sketches Reynolds is always doodling. He's a creature of abnormal precision, just like the Method actor playing him and the filmmaker creating him. Phantom Thread is a lush, listless indulgence for both artists. Not a good fit.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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