Getting away for a weekend from the rigidly ordered life that he and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, "Another Year") lead running London's greatest couture house, Reynolds Woodcock's (Daniel Day-Lewis) eye is captured by clumsy, young Eastern European waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps), who teases him over his gluttonous breakfast order. Soon she's ensconced in the House of Woodcock, Reynolds's latest muse, but Alma refuses to buckle under as her string of predecessors did, breaking Woodcock rules and pulling a "Phantom Thread."
This is the most intimate film writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights," "The Master") has made to date, ironic given its repressed protagonist. This perverse adult drama examines the give-and-take of marriage through a very specific microscope, Cyril haunting the relationship like "Rebecca's" Mrs. Danvers. But it is a real ghost, that of Reynolds's mother, that Alma realizes holds the key to domination over him.
The film begins with a firelit Alma telling an unknown interviewer about the demands of her relationship, Anderson revealing the identity of her confessor near film's end. Jumping back in time, we see the 'demanding' man she's described perform his elaborate toilette, then joining Cyril and Johanna (Camilla Rutherford, "Breathe"), the latter clearly miffed at the lack of attention being paid her, the end of her relationship obvious to all but her. Upstairs, Woodcock inspects a beautifully detailed and tailored gown. Countess Henrietta Harding (Gina McKee, "In the Loop") swoops in to take delighted possession of it, one of the many fabulously wealthy socialites and royals House of Woodcock caters to.
At the seaside, Reynolds quickly seduces Alma with his charm, securing a dinner date which turns into nightcaps at his country home where he tells her about his trade in his workspace, including secret message he hides in his clothing. There is a surprisingly immediate intimacy between these two very different people, but back in London Reynolds' focus is on work, Alma's raw beauty transformed by his clothing in his showplace but the noisy buttering of her toast suddenly as disruptive as a 'horse being ridden across the room.' They bond again over the retrieval of one of his gowns, desecrated by the drunken wedding behavior of client Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris, "Addams Family Values"). Then Alma makes a very bold move, asking Cyril to clear the household by dusk so that she may surprise Reynolds with a home cooked candlelight dinner. Cyril warns the young woman, but Alma persists, only to be rewarded with Reynolds' proclamation of his own gallantry in having eaten asparagus served in a butter sauce. Alma's foraged mushrooms, however, evoke an entirely different response, one that illuminates her psychological upper hand. The next morning, Reynolds astonishes everyone by collapsing into the wedding dress awaiting Princess Mona Braganza (Lujza Richter). He's attended to by Alma, who brushes aside Dr. Robert Hardy (Brian Gleeson, "mother!") as his staff work around the clock to repair the dress damage.
Two disgraced wedding dresses lead into a third, the weakened Reynolds professing his love for Alma, whom he marries. The marriage gets off to a shaky start, the headstrong Alma bucking Reynolds's set ways, but another argument once again finds itself resolved in the kitchen (Reynolds delivers the film's last line - 'I'm hungry').
The film is often mordantly funny, but Anderson's precise, cerebral approach to his material is unlikely to find much appeal outside of his established fan base. Daniel Day Lewis, who claims this as his last film, was Anderson's coconspirator, the actor's fascination with handmade craft and design worked into his character, the more elegant creation an Anderson corrective for "Blood's" Daniel Plainview. But believable as his eccentric genius is, it is the women who steal the show, Krieps breaking out onto the global stage. Woodcock may not be an open book, but Krieps makes us believe Alma is one, then surprises with hidden depths. The actress has a fresh faced beauty which can be overlooked but which fascinates once given the proper setting. The camera loves her. The always reliable Manville, a Mike Leigh regular, shows us an entirely different side for Anderson, the steely Woodcock sibling like a nun at a Catholic dance, always present between the couple until ceding to the victor by baring her teeth at the brother.
The production has a restrained lushness, an elegance as refined as Woodcock's classic, quality couture (costume design by Mark Bridges). Jonny Greenwood's ("There Will Be Blood") piano and string ensemble score adds brooding dark dimensions and edgy tension to this unconventional romance.
Robin gives "Phantom Thread" a B.
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