I’d love to fathom the process whereby writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson decided that this story could only be told with these characters in this milieu at this time … for, without the prompt of a source novel or his own background and interests, he has chosen to enter into what strikes me as a minutely convincing recreation of the enclosed world of a society dress designer in London in the 1950s. I’m fairly sensitive to bum notes in historical recreation – the few anachronisms and slips in Crimson Peak, which offers a not-dissimilar gothic eternal triangle, set my teeth on edge – but this slides past with casual conviction in everything from accents through a breakfast menu to a recreation of the New Year’s Eve Chelsea Arts Ball which is one of the few large-scale scenes. In The Master, Anderson’s story ended up in Britain at about this time, so perhaps his research on that entailed noticing phantom threads which he picked up and followed.
It’s no doubt unintentional, but this shares quite a bit with Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! – with which it’s an interesting contrast, examining a similarly nuanced and troubled relationship between genius and muse but then complicating things in a manner that – like Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy – suggests that there are extreme but effective ways of putting a potentially dysfunctional relationship on an even keel. Some viewers will be reminded of Rebecca, though there are elements of Misery too – and, in another coincidence, a strand about artfully-picked and prepared poisonous mushrooms is an echo of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. Anderson is a knowing filmmaker who likes to pull in elements of other films and archetypal stories, but he’s not just a reference-dropper and this is a compelling addition to the conversation about gothic romance. There Will Be Blood, his last collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis, was permeated with vampire references … and here, in a tiny snippet, Day-Lewis and his character’s intended victim, walk along the cliffs at Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire, where Stoker’s Dracula came ashore in the form of a wolf. The high society of Phantom Thread is much more polite than the oil boom of TWBB, but just as vicious – with an absolutely splendid, fearless work from Gina McKee as a mercurially venomous aristo who bestows and withdraws her patronage as if deciding on the lives or deaths of a thousand slaves.
Most of these stories start with the tremulous young thing (often the narrator or viewpoint character) who enters the bad baronet’s castle to learn his secret – think of all those chapters about Jane Eyre at school. And this does begin with Alma (Vicky Krieps) talking about her man as if she were being interviewed by the press or the police after a calamity or crime, but it then (like Mother!) establishes the fate of Bluebeard’s previous wife. Johanna (Camilla Rutherford) desperately tries to get a response from Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) at breakfast and is told ‘no more stodgy things’ before the designer withdraws and lets his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who functions as consiglieri (or as Mrs Danvers), go about the business of getting rid of the woman. Then, in a country restaurant, Reynolds finds clumsy but canny waitress Alma – obviously not English, but with a background she never reveals – and decides she is suitable as a replacement. Anderson suggests that the relationship is intense but sexless, with the prissy Reynolds – Day-Lewis shows the profile of an eccentric like Ernest Thesiger or Gustav von Seyffertitz and adopts a high-pitched, precise manner which seems asexual – needing the girl as a living dressmaker’s dummy, a subordinate straw boss for his gaggle of seamstresses, and a cuddle toy in the dark days after a dress is finished and worn off in the world by an unworthy patroness.
From the start, Alma knows her days are counted and so does the hawklike Cyril – but a literal thimbleful of grated poison shroom is applied and Alma shakes things up in the man’s world, eventually extorting an excruciating proposal of marriage out of him. Even then, Alma (is Mrs Woodcock named after Mrs Hitchcock?) has to deal with her husband’s slide into dissatisfaction with a muse he now can’t simply fire. Anderson manages a mix of comedy of manners and sinister intent – with Johnny Greenwood providing a near-constant background presence (including an orchestration of a Fauré selection 1960s Brit kids will recognise as the ‘Listen With Mother’ theme) and sound designer Christopher Scarabosio doing sterling work in making the buttering of breakfast toast and the pouring of lapsang tea into a symphony of agonising sounds the like of which drove Roderick Usher mad.
Day-Lewis is so committed and demanding a performer that he often dominates entire casts – it’d be a savant among movie buffs who can namecheck the actresses who are notionally his leading ladies in his biggest films. Here, Anderson depends on that aspect of his star’s style to establish the sort of alpha dog Reynolds Woodcock is in his exclusive world – he’s the sort of dress designer who doesn’t even have to be in fashion (‘I hate the word “chic”’) to be at the top of his profession. But the film depends on its leading lady and locked-in Best Supporting Actress Manville being able to hold the screen with Day-Lewis and, in certain scenes, dominate him. Manville, of course, is a quiet, subtle powerhouse, and makes Cyril much more than just a gothic contrivance, but the revelation here is Vicky Krieps. She was in Hanna, A Most Wanted Man (which starred Anderson’s late collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a string of German films (though she’s from Luxembourg, which might explain why Alma’s precise origin is a mystery); after this outstanding performance, she’s likely to be a major star character actress.