Opening this week

‘Phantom Thread’ film review: Stunning performances in a drama about love and other creases

Paul Thomas Anderson’s battle-of-the-sexes drama has Daniel Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville all in top form.

London, the 1950s. Renowned couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) has run out of patience with his latest muse. His sister and manager Cyril (Lesley Manville), calmly suggests that he move on. The siblings share an unspoken bond after the death of their mother, which has deeply affected Reynolds. When Reynolds brings home a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), and starts fitting her out in his creations, Cyril hunkers down for the inevitable triangle that will play out in the household.

Alma is the picture of inelegance when she first sees Reynolds in a restaurant, but the designer spots in her the perfect object of experimentation. He likes women with a small belly, Cyril tells Alma by way of explanation.

Reynolds seeks to cut Alma out of the same cloth as himself and his sister, but the sprightly Alma resists his attempts at control. She shatters the breakfast rule of complete silence by buttering her toast too vigorously, and chafes at being treated on the same level as Reynolds’s all-women crew. The micro-management that governs the lives of the siblings – the atelier cannot work any other way – influences Alma as well as causes her to break out in unanticipated directions.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s subtly crafted stunner is less a fashion movie than a study of power equations. Modern psychologists might characterise the relationship that develops between the older sophisticated man and the younger inexperienced woman as co-dependent. Sociologists will see the unmistakable first stirrings of a gender war in the untrained Alma’s attempts to pick up the tricks of her patron’s trade and be regarded as his equal rather than a submissive muse.

Fans of Anderson will see the resurfacing of familiar themes, including the pursuit of an ideal at the risk of alienating loved ones, the tensions between authority figures and followers, and the peculiar nature of obsession, which transforms as well as tarnishes.

The age-old bruising encounters between men and women, romance and expectations, play out in a world in which perfection and obsession are professional requirements. Despite its haute couture backdrop, Phantom Thread has a pared-down and rough-hewn quality. The clothes are elegant without calling attention to themselves, and function as an extension of the tightly held emotional landscape that Reynolds and Cyril have created for themselves, one that Alma permanently disturbs.

Play
Phantom Thread.

The American director, shooting for the first time in the United Kingdom, focuses on the detailing rather than the broad canvas. The drama is filled with numerous and luminous close-ups – the director has also shot the movie – and moments that reveal the care and attentiveness that drive fashion. Sequences fall perfectly from one to the next, accompanied by Jonny Greenwood’s classical background score. The movie reaches its peak with a bruising spat between mentor and muse, after which it elegantly moves towards a hurried and unconvincing denouement.

The delicate balance of performances never wavers even in the final headscratching moments. Daniel Day Lewis, in what he has said is his final role, is typically brilliant as the self-absorbed designer, but his efforts are matched by the two main female characters. Lesley Manville, the fabulous actress from Another Year (2010), is stupendous as the perfectly coiffed Cyril, especially in the scene in which she demolishes her obdurate brother by reminding him of her superior debating skills. Vicky Krieps is stunning as Alma, matching Day Lewis in her rigour and determination.

Although Anderson’s screenplay doesn’t allow Alma’s actions to be adequately explained and papers over the class differences between the lovers, Krieps makes every scene of hers sparkle with her watchful intelligence and instinct for self-preservation. When Reynolds watches Alma let her hair down at a New Year’s Eve party, it is as if he is seeing her for the first time.

There are shades of Roman Polanski’s twisted relationship dramas in Phantom Thread, but without the savage honesty. In this atelier of intense emotions, Anderson has crafted an old-fashioned romance about the very foundation of modern romance. The title hints at the invisible skeins that run through the fabric of love itself. This phantom thread lingers, like the recurring ghost of the designer’s dead mother, to remind him and Alma of the ruffles and creases that can never be smoothed out. Rather than a love story, the movie is about the state of being in love.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Tracing the formation of Al Qaeda and its path to 9/11

A new show looks at some of the crucial moments leading up to the attack.

“The end of the world war had bought America victory but not security” - this quote from Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, ‘The Looming Tower’, gives a sense of the growing threat to America from Al Qaeda and the series of events that led to 9/11. Based on extensive interviews, including with Bin Laden’s best friend in college and the former White House counterterrorism chief, ‘The Looming Tower’ provides an intimate perspective of the 9/11 attack.

Lawrence Wright chronicles the formative years of Al Qaeda, giving an insight in to Bin Laden’s war against America. The book covers in detail, the radicalisation of Osama Bin Laden and his association with Ayman Al Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor who preached that only violence could change history. In an interview with Amazon, Wright shared, “I talked to 600-something people, but many of those people I talked to again and again for a period of five years, some of them dozens of times.” Wright’s book was selected by TIME as one of the all-time 100 best nonfiction books for its “thoroughly researched and incisively written” account of the road to 9/11 and is considered an essential read for understanding Islam’s war on the West as it developed in the Middle East.

‘The Looming Tower’ also dwells on the response of key US officials to the rising Al Qaeda threat, particularly exploring the turf wars between the FBI and the CIA. This has now been dramatized in a 10-part mini-series of the same name. Adapted by Dan Futterman (of Foxcatcher fame), the series mainly focuses on the hostilities between the FBI and the CIA. Some major characters are based on real people - such as John O’ Neill (FBI’s foul-mouthed counterterrorism chief played by Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (O’ Neill’s Arabic-speaking mentee who successfully interrogated captured Islamic terrorists after 9/11, played by Tahar Rahim). Some are composite characters, such as Martin Schmidt (O’Neill’s CIA counterpart, played by Peter Sarsgaard).

The series, most crucially, captures just how close US intelligence agencies had come to foiling Al Qaeda’s plans, just to come up short due to internal turf wars. It follows the FBI and the CIA as they independently follow intelligence leads in the crises leading up to 9/11 – the US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the attack on US warship USS Cole in Yemen – but fail to update each other. The most glaring example is of how the CIA withheld critical information – Al Qaeda operatives being hunted by the FBI had entered the United States - under the misguided notion that the CIA was the only government agency authorised to deal with terrorism threats.

The depth of information in the book has translated into a realistic recreation of the pre-9/11 years on screen. The drama is even interspersed with actual footage from the 9/11 conspiracy, attack and the 2004 Commission Hearing, linking together the myriad developments leading up to 9/11 with chilling hindsight. Watch the trailer of this gripping show below.

Play

The Looming Tower is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, along with a host of Amazon originals and popular movies and TV shows. To enjoy unlimited ad free streaming anytime, anywhere, subscribe to Amazon Prime Video.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon Prime Video and not by the Scroll editorial team.