Phantom Thread is a film made by American money entirely in the UK (apart from some post-production). There are so many distinctive local features that it feels a little like those 1960s ‘British Hollywood’ features. It’s a Paul Thomas Anderson production (which he has written, directed and appears to have photographed himself – there is no photography credit) so we expect something distinctive and different. I purposely tried to forget anything I’d read beforehand (though I confess to looking out for the scene shot in Blackpool Tower Ballroom). I couldn’t work out why the characters might go to Blackpool and of course they don’t, but in an early scene there is a card or a painting of some kind in the background that might be a view of the Promenade and the Tower and later the ballroom stands in for The Albert Hall staging the New Year’s Eve Chelsea Arts Ball.
So, not knowing too much about what to expect, I missed most of the critical references I was supposed to see. I don’t think this is because I’m too stupid to spot them or that the film doesn’t necessarily conform to the critical consensus. Instead, I think I just got interested in different things and I possibly missed some key markers. I think also that Anderson perhaps didn’t realise how this British spectator would view the film. Let me say first that I enjoyed the film. How could I not enjoy three central performances of great skill and a sumptuously presented insight into the craft processes of haute couture?
The narrative offers us Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) who lives in a Mayfair town house servicing the demands of aristocratic patrons for wedding dresses and other haute couture costumes some time in the early 1950s. He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and a succession of live-in ‘girlfriends’ – young women who believe for a moment that they can disrupt the ordered bachelor world Reynolds has built around himself. After a particularly difficult work period, the latest of these young women is sent on her way (by Cyril) and Reynolds drives to his country retreat – a large house with its own upstairs atelier. The country retreat appears to be in Yorkshire (but filmed in the Cotswolds) and Reynolds first stops at a hotel in Robin Hood’s Bay where he meets a young woman serving breakfast and is immediately smitten. This is Alma (Vicky Krieps) and a few days later he will take her back to London.
I can understand why Reynolds would find Alma bewitching. I was fascinated by her from the start. Her smile made me think of someone else I’d seen who I couldn’t place (later I discovered that she’d been in a French film I’d seen, but couldn’t remember). At first I thought Alma might be Irish, but a little later an incident suggests that she might be a European refugee and later still her surname sounds Northern European, possibly Nordic. The critical fraternity has latched onto the fact that Hitchcock was married to Alma Reville and this is cited as strong evidence that the film is meant to be a ‘gothic romance’ with Rebecca as just one of several filmic inspirations. Certainly Cyril at times seems very much in the Mrs Danvers mould, but others have referred to the young women who enter the ‘House of Woodcock’ as more akin to ‘Bluebeard’s wives’. James Bell writing in Sight and Sound (February 2018) discusses a range of filmic references. He mentions The Red Shoes (1948) and Anderson certainly appears to be a Powell & Pressburger fan. The link here is the Svengali-like figure of the ballet impresario Lermontov but the relationships are quite different in the two films. Anderson’s passion for David Lean is seemingly well-known and Lean’s The Passionate Friends (1949) is also quoted as an inspiration for Phantom Thread. I can’t remember the Lean film at all, but it does seem that two sequences in Anderson’s film are directly inspired by it (the Swiss hotel and the New Year’s Eve Arts Ball). Alongside Bell’s piece the website ‘Film School Rejects’ suggests the same links and adds some more – all of which Anderson seems to have alluded too. So, Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) and P & P’s I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) are mentioned as well as several other Hitchcocks. For me, discussing Hitchcock and Powell together makes some sense but Lean is almost Powell’s opposite as a filmmaker (and was certainly seen as such during 1945-50). It turns out that Anderson’s interest in I Know Where I’m Going! is because there is a contrast between the wild landscapes and the characters trapped in ‘tiny rooms’. Well, yes there is – I wonder if Anderson knows that it is because the lead actors never went on location?
My point in mentioning all these references is that while fascinating, they don’t really help the average cinemagoer to make sense of the narrative – and several comments on IMDb (and others people have made to me) describe the film as ‘boring’. That’s a shame, but if you make a film with a narrative that is impenetrable for large swathes of the audience, you have a problem. I don’t think that Phantom Thread has the passion that Powell & Pressburger might have brought to the table or the disturbance that Hitchcock might have generated. Instead, Anderson offers us an intimate drama with wit and an element of fantasy and mystery that could have been developed further. The music by Jonny Greenwood and the sound design are both very effective and I always enjoy the ‘procedural’ elements of, in this case, haute couture. However, this kind of haute couture involves the British (and European) aristocracy in the 1950s as customers – a quite repellent bunch in many instances (which, to be fair, the story does deal with). Against this, at the beginning of the film, one of my favourite actors, Gina McKee, a miner’s daughter from Peterlee, appears as ‘Countess Henrietta Harding’. Gina seems to be having so much fun showing off a posh frock, it helped me to get through some of the excruciating scenes. I was reminded, however, of a film about fashion that I did enjoy very much, Coco avant Chanel (France 2009) with Audrey Tautou as the young Chanel – an insight into innovation in dress design. Despite the exquisite work of the seamstresses, I didn’t really like any of the clothes on show (which is not to blame the designer Mark Bridges who was trying to represent the designs of the times).
I did enjoy watching the film, but I think Anderson missed a trick by not making more of the landscapes in Yorkshire and Switzerland. I felt that the presentation was too restrained. More melodrama for me, more gothic and more passion. It has been reported that this could be the last feature for both Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis, at least for the moment. That would be a loss to contemporary cinema. I daresay Vicky Krieps will get interesting roles in the future and Lesley Manville will go from strength to strength. Here’s the trailer. It looks like all those things I want are here – but they are selected moments from a 130 mins narrative: