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Phantom Thread review - Paul Thomas Anderson's ridiculous romantic comedy is distilled perfection


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Excelling on all levels, Paul Thomas Anderson's gorgeous period piece is one of his finest.

In his more recent works, Paul Thomas Anderson has appreciated the power of enigmas, hypnotic mystery and emotional secrecy. He favours people that can't be solved or unravelled. The struggles that define There Will Be Blood and The Master, for a time his two greatest achievements, are contained within the minds of their central double acts. We have inklings, ideas, hints at their motivations, but they ultimately remain tantalisingly out of reach. With Phantom Thread, Anderson is tackling the hardest riddle to crack: what makes a relationship work?

That relationship, just as titanic a conflict as anything in The Master, is between Reynolds Woodcock and Alma Elson. Woodcock, the character with which Daniel Day-Lewis is choosing to bow out into retirement, is at once a towering genius and a fragile man-child.

A renowned fashion designer in 1950s London, creating dresses fit for princesses, he is also unable to function properly outside of a specific routine. Said routine includes courting, using, and then discarding, an indeterminate number of beautiful young women. Though it initially seems as though Alma, played by relative newcomer Vicky Krieps, will be just another of these women, she is determined to push back.

It's difficult to focus on the individual parts of such a neatly constructed film; it's as carefully woven together as one of Woodcock's famous dresses. But to start with, both Day-Lewis and Krieps are superb. With the former, it is still a joy to see him inhabit not just the voice, the manner, and stance of his character, but his soul too. Under Day-Lewis' guise, Woodcock is gothic, sunken, purring, and fantastically bourgeois.

Krieps, on the other hand, is remarkable as the innocent outsider thrust into Woodcock's highly-strung, eggshell-walking world, even as she becomes just as sharp as her on-screen romance. It would also be a shame not to mention Lesley Manville's Cyrill, Woodcock's surrogate-mother of a sister. She chews the scenery with enunciated grace and confidence; her mere presence is terrifying, yet she is cold-faced and soft-voiced throughout.

The central duo is at each others' throats with each carefully spoken line of dialogue. The script is deliciously passive-aggressive, a politely fought battle of words between two immovable forces. Even in its most deranged moments, it still retains a breathtaking decorum, a stately sense of poise and elegance. And let it be said: it can be extremely deranged. It reaches the kind of farcical, insultingly harsh discourse as mother! did last year, the kind where the only appropriate reaction is to laugh out of embarrassment. But Anderson keeps every part of the film working hard to carry such a difficult script into the realms of genuine delight and entertainment. 

This is true not least of Jonny Greenwood's flawless score, a sumptuous work of classical composition and grand beauty that is every bit as magnificent as the film. Heard by itself, it finds beauty and dissonance constantly tugging at one another, but put to celluloid, it's a guiding force. It's ever-present, a sly mix of pastiche and genuine operatic splendour.

Just as magnificent is the cinematography, apparently a group effort between Anderson and his entire camera team, which captures both the ravishing decor of the house, and the battle of wits on the faces of the leads, with the same intricate texture and sweeping grandeur.

Phantom Thread is just as gratifying to dissect and unpick as it is to actually watch. Anderson has taken the qualities that have defined his period pieces and fashioned them into something that is confoundingly accessible. This is not to say he has sold out, far from it: it's every bit as strange and peculiar as his previous work.

But the film is, in its basest form, a romantic comedy that asks how we make our relationships work. It's exaggerated, of course, and far closer to the dramatism of opera than it is to the light-hearted trashiness of, say, P.S. I Love You, but there are glimpses of reality visible amidst the heady absurdism and resplendence. 

Detailing its parallels with our own relationships any further would risk spoiling the affair, which should be seen clean and untarnished. Nevertheless, it's a top-to-bottom masterpiece, every single individual part of which is executed perfectly without getting in the way of an emotionally giddying experience. Pure, distilled perfection, and another resounding victory in a catalogue of successes.

Phantom Thread is out now, distributed by Universal Pictures.

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