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Review: Phantom Thread will leave viewers ravenous for character nourishment

Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread.

Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Phantom Thread
Written by
Paul Thomas Anderson
Directed by
Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring
Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville
Genre
Drama
Classification
14A
Country
USA
Language
English
Year
2017

Paul Thomas Anderson's films are driven by hunger. His breakthrough work, the Scorseseian porn saga Boogie Nights, thrusts at a number of urgent and carnal appetites, but is all about the hunger for fame. Hard Eight and Magnolia, the hunger for reconciliation. There Will be Blood and The Master, for legacy. Punch-Drunk Love for, well, love. Anderson's characters delight in starving themselves for what they desire, and the filmmaker rewards their metaphorical ravenousness more often than not. (The one exception: Inherent Vice, in which stoned hero Larry (Doc) Sportello stumbles out of the film just as curiously famished as he began it.)

Phantom Thread, though, has a far more literal hunger on its mind. Anderson's latest drama – or, more accurately, the director's latest emotional puzzle, as the filmmaker further inches away from the narrative straitjacketing of plot – is driven by gluttony. Plain and simple.

At the beginning of the film, we encounter Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a renowned dressmaker in 1950s London, as he eats breakfast in the grand townhouse that doubles as his studio. It is a delicate and quiet repast that instantly stamps Woodcock's personality: exacting, meticulous, insatiable. A few scenes later and Woodcock is back at the breakfast table, although this time having absconded to the countryside, precisely because the earlier meal was derailed by an uncouth dining companion. Here, at a seaside inn staffed by Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who becomes his lover and also his greatest enemy, Woodcock orders another meal of monstrous proportions: tea, bacon, scones, Welsh rarebit, butter, cream, jam, "and some sausages." Throughout the film, Anderson treats us to yet more scenes of Woodcock consuming, digesting and purging to make room for more. Indeed, Phantom Thread's final line is Woodcock uttering, almost moaning, "I'm hungry."

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The trouble is, by the time that concluding wink of dialogue arrives – carrying two shades more than its literal meaning – you, too, may be famished, if not outright emaciated. This is because Phantom Thread, as much as it is a meditation on the very real hunger that drives a madman, offers not quite enough in the way of emotional or character nourishment. To kill this metaphor dead – which Anderson nearly does in every scene where Woodcock eats eggs while those around him walk on egg shells – Phantom Thread is a cinematic meal forever stuck in the kitchen, its creator fussing at the dish with tweezers, never satisfied.

It would be easy, and fun, to write that Anderson is full here in only the way an auteur can be full of himself, but that would be far from fair. (Yet I did it any way, in a move of petty unctuousness I'm going to call "Woodcocking.") The intentions of Phantom Thread are admirable, and the filmmaker is nothing if not dedicated to the aesthetic possibilities of the screen.

Acting as his own cinematographer, Anderson shoots Woodcock's world as a beautifully claustrophobic nightmare. Aside from a precious few jaunts into the outside world, Phantom Thread takes place entirely inside the designer's home, all curved staircases and hushed drawing rooms. The director floods these spaces with light, and moves his camera with a hypnotic fluidity up and down the storeys, in and around the corners. There are the stark close-ups of Woodcock's socks, his shoes, his hairbrushes, his glasses, his china. We get to know the man's environment better than the man himself, which is possibly intentional but no small problem, either.

When Woodcock starts to grate on Alma, when he clashes with his sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville), when he gloms onto certain clients and slinks away from others, Anderson offers little interest in examining why he behaves the way he does – or more importantly, why we should care. Day-Lewis is clearly having fun – or as much "fun" as Day-Lewis allows himself on any project – but if this is indeed the actor's final film before retiring, as he's said, then it seems an almost cruel joke that Anderson only lets him scratch the surface, never drawing any blood.

Perhaps this is Anderson's version of a parlour game – walk into Phantom Thread expecting a portrait of a testy male genius as portrayed by another testy male genius, but be gifted with a stealth drama about the hidden lives of the women who suffer in his shadow. Yet even that hopeful theory doesn't quite work. Anderson positions Alma as the anti-muse, someone with a life of her own that directly threatens that of the man who hopes to creatively profit from her existence. Yet there is never a glimpse of what exactly Alma's life is. Anderson offers nothing in the way of her history, her nationality (what is a single woman, played by the Luxembourger Krieps with her accent fully intact, doing in rural Britain in the fifties in the first place?), or even her last name. We do know her desires – but those seem to be principally disrupting Woodcock's. By the time Anderson pulls out a twist for her, by way of a dramatic principle that's essentially "Chekhov's toxic mushrooms," Alma can only be labelled as much a cipher as her paramour.

In Anderson and Day-Lewis's previous collaboration, There Will Be Blood, the director afforded his leading man a wallop of a final line. After Day-Lewis's oil baron Daniel Plainview beats his lifelong rival dead in an absurd and now bloodied basement-level bowling alley, he whisper-screams, "I'm finished" to no one in particular. It is just as darkly funny as Phantom Thread's aforementioned "I'm hungry" capper, but also vital and cathartic. It is, to return to the metaphor I promised to earlier kill, the final course in a meal for the ages – one that Reynolds Woodcock would have no doubt ate up, had he been given the chance.

Phantom Thread opens Jan. 5 in Toronto before expanding to other Canadian cities.

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***

P.T.A.'s PDA

Like his contemporaries Wes Anderson, David O. Russell and Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson has built up a rep company of sorts over his career, populating each of his films with familiar on-screen collaborators. Anderson's latest work, the period drama Phantom Thread, is no exception, with the filmmaker once again working with star Daniel Day-Lewis, after the high of the 2007 epic There Will Be Blood. In honour of this latest pairing, The Globe and Mail presents a brief breakdown of some of Anderson's favoured objects of affection.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

The late actor worked with Anderson more than any other performer so far, appearing in five of the director's films, from his 1996 debut Hard Eight through 2012's The Master – the latter a high-water mark for both Hoffman and Anderson.

John C. Reilly

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Today, Reilly is best known for his delightfully surreal comedy work with Will Ferrell (Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, Anchorman 2, the upcoming Holmes and Watson). But the actor also found a familiar partner in crime with Anderson, appearing in three of his films, each requiring a different dramatic wavelength: Hard Eight, 1997's Boogie Nights and 1999's Magnolia.

Philip Baker Hall

The gravelly voiced actor, perhaps familiar to certain audiences as the deadpan Lieutenant Bookman on Seinfeld, ties Reilly for his work with Anderson, also appearing in Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia – although he does have an edge, having also starred in Anderson's 1993 short film, Cigarettes & Coffee (the basis of Hard Eight).

Julianne Moore

It is just as difficult to imagine Boogie Nights without Moore's perpetually high, emotionally shattered porn star Amber Waves as it is Magnolia without the actress's strung-out (in all senses) trophy wife Linda Partridge.

Joaquin Phoenix

Like Day-Lewis, Phoenix is a latecomer to the Anderson fold. But once the actor joined forces with the filmmaker for The Master and 2014's Inherent Vice, it became hard to wonder how the two ever worked without one another before. Here's hoping that, with Day-Lewis allegedly now retired from acting, Anderson hops back in bed with Phoenix

Justin Trudeau’s spoiler-free review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (The Canadian Press)
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