Movie Beat: Daniel Day-Lewis bright spot in Paul Thomas Anderson’s flat, emotionless “Phantom Thread”


By Jenniffer Wardell

Rated R for language

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Leslie Manville, Camilla Rutherford and more

Grade: One star

 

When you’re making a movie that depends entirely on passion, you need to make sure you put some of that passion on the screen.

Sadly, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t seem to get that memo. His “Phantom Thread” is an almost completely bloodless look at passion, obsession and desire, a jarring tonal dissonance that results in a movie where we’re told what’s happening instead of shown it. You can intellectually piece together that passion and obsession must be the reasons for the ridiculous plot – nothing that happens makes any sense, otherwise – but it becomes more of a logic problem than a movie.

The film features Day-Lewis as a renowned, emotionally rigid dressmaker who saves all his most intense emotions for his art and drives his significant others crazy by not paying enough attention to them. The only other person who fits into his life is his older sister, who helps him run his studio. When he finds his latest muse in a small roadside restaurant and brings her into his household, however, the house’s emotional equilibrium and balance of power is sent into a tailspin from which it may never recover.

Emotion is clearly supposed to be the major motivation for the movie, but very few of the intense feelings the characters’ profess are ever shown on screen. There’s barely any spark between Day-Lewis and Krieps, and far too often they come across less like lovers and more like two people who have found themselves standing awkwardly together at a party. The stillness Anderson brings to Day-Lewis’s character’s house is barely interrupted by their supposed relationship, which feels as formal and posed as if they were mannequins Anderson was arranging for a photo shoot.

He does the most disservice to Krieps, who occasionally shows flashes of being a better actress than Anderson lets her be. There was an entire chunk of the movie where I thought she was simply incapable of showing emotion, but when she’s allowed free reign in one of the movie’s few genuinely interesting scenes it’s clear that Anderson is the one holding her back.

The movie’s one star is largely to the credit of Daniel Day-Lewis, who tries with every fiber of his being to bring some sense of passion and deeply felt emotion to the screen. He mostly manages it in scenes focusing on the character’s dresses and clients, and though I could never quite believe in the relationship I could at least believe that the man was deeply committed to his art.

The rest of the star goes to Lesley Manville, who was profoundly interesting every second she was onscreen even though the movie gave her hardly anything to do. Her and Day-Lewis’s performances made me long for a prequel film, where we could see these two siblings grow up together in their strange, insular little world. I would even have enjoyed a movie where Krieps’ character was allowed to show emotion, meeting Day-Lewis measure for measure.

Sadly, Anderson decided to make this movie instead.

(Photo © Focus Features)

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