Phantom Thread comes to our screens burdened with promise. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There will Be Blood), it abandons his usual Californian locations for 1950s UK, and stars Daniel Day Lewis in what is purported to be his final role. Little wonder it has received so many Oscar nominations.
Unsurprising then, that there is plenty here to admire, even if there is very little to actually like. As a character study, it’s cleverly done and the acting is sublime. Day Lewis’s personification of spoiled and finicky fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock is as detailed and compelling as we’ve come to expect; Lesley Manville’s portrayal of his sister Cyril an object lesson in understated acerbity. Newcomer Vicky Krieps is an enigmatic delight, breathing warmth and freshness into the role of Alma, the young waitress who catches Reynolds’ eye. It’s great to see Julia Davis revelling in the depiction of arch gossip Lady Baltimore, and there’s a host of supporting actors doing cracking stuff on screen. And it all looks wonderful, of course: from the gorgeous fashions to the sumptuous decor; from the washed-out lighting to the grandeur of their homes.
It’s the plot, I think, that bothers me. I don’t have the obvious concerns (rich, successful man with an overwhelming sense of entitlement meets poor foreign waitress with no understanding of her own potential – and proceeds to change her life) because I think these are successfully subverted by the way that Alma is portrayed; she has agency from the beginning, and makes her own desire as clear as his. She and Reynolds talk as equals; she is not quashed by him, even as she stands submissively allowing him to dress her. The set-up itself is fine: his unreasonable demands are shown for what they are; Cyril’s role as mediator between her brother and the world is clearly a necessary one. He’s a genius, and a successful one; allowances must be made, because he tends to tire of his girlfriends quickly, and treats them with evident contempt. But Alma is different. She challenges his behaviour, won’t allow him to dispose of her.
Some critics have suggested that this skews the power dynamic in her favour, or puts the couple on an even footing, but I find myself squirming at this suggestion. Because (minor spoiler alert!) Alma’s only power, in the end, is negative. She doesn’t become stronger, she just weakens him. If mimicking the behaviour of Munchausens-by-proxy is the only means to sustain a relationship, then I’d argue the relationship is very toxic indeed. And it’s not that I’m suggesting that a film cannot portray a toxic relationship. Of course it can. Neither is it that I expect morals from my movies. It’s just… the story arc suggests this is a happy ending, of sorts, and the reviews I’ve read don’t even hint that this resolution is at least problematic for the characters involved. Misogyny is not challenged by feminine wiles and culinary arts, it’s merely reinforced. And, to my mind, this is a fatal wound from which Phantom Thread never quite recovers.