Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
One of the many problems writing about how I experience a piece of cinema or television, is the effort to ensure I’m not wearing my “critical” hat while in the middle of that experience. Even in the worst of circumstances, I can usually contain the impulse to find the warts until after. Of course, every so often, a film (like “Downsizing”) or show (like the fourth season finale of “Peaky Blinders”) is so bad, I begin to write the review in my head while right in the throes of it. But, fortunately, that remains a very rare experience.
But lemme tell ya, “Phantom Thread” is so close, literally a step away, to being a really, really great film, that it was simply impossible to avoid the intersection of critique and experience during the film’s last five minutes – a five minutes that seemingly had nothing to do with the story that was being told. Honestly, it felt as if I had seen a cut of the film that left a scene out. How could this happen? My best guess is that director, Paul Thomas Anderson (whose work I LOVE), either thought no one would notice the harsh turn of character that has no basis in the film’s previous two hours, or, more likely, he realized it had to end somehow, so he shoehorned a size 11 ending in to a size 9 shoe. Me? I left wondering what the hell I was supposed to get out of it.
Yet, everything else about the film is simply gorgeous. The acting is beyond superb, I would even say it’s delicious. The dialogue and scene-work are the perfect combination of Chekov’s comic discomfort and Pinter’s louder-than-the-spoken-word pauses. And, those last five minutes aside, Anderson has an almost supernatural ability to create ultra-realistic places we’ve never thought to visit – in this case, the intensely personal, and uncomfortably intimate, world of England’s high fashion houses in the fifties.
Mark Tildesley (production designer) and Denis Schnegg (supervising art director) have given Anderson maybe the most sumptuous canvas to paint on this year. Anderson (who is also the cinematographer) must have used every minute of the two-plus years since “Inherent Vice” to create this House of Woodcock. Sweating every last and least detail as Zeferelli would, or Scorsese did for “Washington Square”, the production elements mirror the exactitude necessary to match Daniel Day-Lewis’ character. This is film craftsmanship at its most precise and elegant. Every shot so specific, even the building begins to take on its own sense of emotional instability. Just brilliant.
And the acting…wow! Sure, everyone will talk about the retiring (oh, please) Daniel Day-Lewis, who is, as usual, utterly immersed in his character – so much so it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s a great performance or some sort of identity disorder. But the REAL work in this film belongs to the ladies. Vicky Krieps, a veteran of German film and television, and who is making her Hollywood debut in a starring role, is just perfect. Krieps manages to make you believe that SHE believes there is something to love in Day-Lewis’ Reynolds. And, because of this, Anderson helps you to see both the plain-jane and the woman of extraordinary beauty Reynolds sees in her Alma. No idea how she has escaped award discussion. And then there’s Lesley Manville. Holy crap, she’s good. Having been in several terrific UK procedurals over the years (watch “River” right damned now), she has mastered the art of making lots of noise with the tiniest bit of facial movement. Further, her wealth of quiet pent-up emotion, located just beneath the surface, is the thing that really stirs the film’s coffee (I suppose I should have said milkshake…ah well). An extremely well deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
Finally, a sentence or two about Johnny Greenwood’s Oscar-nominated score. I have been listening to it in heavy rotation for the past week or so. It might be the first time I’ve known a score this well BEFORE I’ve seen the film. Interestingly, I don’t know how much I like it in context of the film. It seemed (and I’m aware this is on Anderson, not Greenwood), highly repetitive, more than a few times encroaching on my ability to focus in on the story. That said, good luck finding a more pleasant listening score start to finish – even if Desplat’s score for “The Shape of Water” has better individual themes, and Zimmer’s “Dunkirk” is…uh…panic-attack inducing in its intense and relentless power.
So, while I still have no idea how we got to the end of the film emotionally, nothing should curtail you from experiencing it for yourselves. This is a once-every-half-decade sort of film. Not the best, but certainly the most detailed in every area.
As for the trailer, while it really does throw you in a different direction than the film, it gives away some of its best single moments – moments best seen in a theater. Not via YouTube.