Phantom Thread is a fine portrait of a dysfunctional master couturier in 50s London, but the characterisation of the young woman who becomes central to his life is neglected, undermining the plausibility of their relationship and detracting from the film.
The 60-something lead character in Phantom Thread, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), is a bit of a case, to put it mildly. On the surface of it, as dressmaker of choice for the rich, royal and famous in 50s London, he’s a resounding success. Every inch the precious, obsessive artiste, his celebrity and money enables him to indulge his fine aesthetic sensibility. He likes his meals just so; he is impeccably well-groomed. But as we come to learn, there’s some sick shit lurking beneath his surface.
For all his trappings of success, Reynolds is an emasculated man-child (Day-Lewis contributed the surname Woodcock – nice one, Dan). He has never married, and never left home. He and ballbreaker spinster sister Cyril (played with great authority by Lesley Manville) live together in their elegant ancestral mansion, from where they conduct the couture business. Cyril takes care of all the business stuff, enabling Reynolds to devote himself to his dress creations. She also clears the way for him to live a highly ritualised life and tends to his every whimsy, but ultimately she controls him. She’s more matriarch than sister, having stepped into the breach, it seems, when their mother died.
See, Reynolds has a mother fixation. He has never snapped the umbilical cord, and in one scene hallucinates his mother’s return in ghostly form. His matriarchal fixation is the key to his character, and in some senses the entire film.
During a rare weekend break in the country he orders a massive breakfast from Alma (Vicky Krieps), a blushing young waitress with a Germanic accent. She refers to him as a “hungry boy” and is profoundly right on both counts. His hunger is a recurring motif throughout the film, pointing perhaps to a gaping hole inside once filled by his mother.
He actually alludes to his mother fixation in his conversation with Alma, but instead of running off screaming, she is charmed by him. She doesn’t realise in accepting his invitation to dinner that his designs on her are utilitarian, not romantic – her body shape makes her ideal as a dress model. She’s soon ensconced in the House of Woodcock.
Not content to function merely as a manikin, she begins to assert herself. Reynolds is deeply unsettled by her disruption of his routines. Alma comes to understand that for Reynolds, women can only be manikin or mother, so if she is to find a permanent place in his life she must be one or the other – or leave. Staggeringly, she takes on the mummy option. Decades younger than Reynolds, in so doing she must find a way to infantilise him. Eeuw.
At this point the film derails. It didn’t have to. The problem is Anderson’s neglect of the characterisation of Alma. She is an appealing young woman. Why does she want to be with a tyrannical, fastidious, egotistical, emasculated old fart with serious mummy issues? There must be something amiss with her, but what? The question is left hanging. We are given nothing of note about her background. We are given virtually no insight into her psychology. Not everything needs to be explained, of course, but something as bizarre as this relationship? Come on!
In directing his focus almost exclusively at the Reynolds character, it’s as if Anderson is too mindful of having the Great Actor Day-Lewis on board and is seeking to showcase his talents in this, his swansong (Day-Lewis has announced that this will be his last film). As expected, he delivers – but let’s face it, as well-integrated and performed as Reynolds is as a character he is not so very interesting or original as to justify starving the other characters of oxygen (hungry boy). When it comes down to it, he’s a variation on a sad, familiar and ultimately pathetic personality type.
The buck has to stop with Anderson here. His writing and direction is male-centric, and in the final analysis his film suffers from its lack of yin. At a time when gender equality is a pressing issue in Hollywood, we could have expected more from one of America’s foremost directors.
Movie Website: http://focusfeatures.com/phantom-thread
Australian release date: Phantom Thread in Australian cinemas from 1 Feb 2018
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