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Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Why ‘Phantom Thread’ is a bad fit as Daniel Day-Lewis’ final movie

Paul Thomas Andersonís Phantom Thread is passionless window-shop cinema, each static tableau lovingly arranged for display and easy dusting. Its centerpiece is a mannequin, albeit played by Daniel Day-Lewis, whose gift for keeping anything interesting is seldom so necessary.

Phantom Thread is reportedly the three-time Oscar winnerís farewell performance. Pity. That makes this reunion with Anderson, a decade after each peaked in There Will be Blood, doubly disappointing. There isnít blood now; Phantom Thread barely has a pulse.

In fairness, Anderson crafts his movie in the image of Day-Lewisí character Reynolds Woodcock, a fastidious prig draping post-war Londonís high society in fabulous dresses. Reynolds is meticulous, obsessing over each stitch and fabric shade. Heís also mercurial, a petulant, passive-aggressive sophisticate with scant life beyond his work.

There may be companions, women who feel lucky to become Reynoldsí living dress form. Not muses; his ego doesnít require that. They are used then discarded, ushered out by Reynoldsí stern sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, a study in disapproval). Reynolds seeks only new female canvases, as a shy waiter named Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps) discovers on their first dinner date.

Alma is flattered, nearly seduced by Reynoldsí offer to make a dress for her. Then he immediately goes to work, measuring, assessing her body, setting her feelings aside. She apologizes for having small breasts. "Itís my job to give you some," Reynolds says. "If I choose to."

Such moments lend Phantom Thread topicality, addressing the way women can be exploited by artists then disposed. Thereís a measure of revenge in store as Reynolds tires of Alma, later confused by an incredible surrender. Yet any #TimesUp relevance feels coincidental to Andersonís haute couture aesthetic; this movie is too pretty to be angry.

Andersonís craft is likewise subdued, without the layered drama and editing panache fans of Boogie Nights and Magnolia may expect. Heís an uncredited cinematographer due to union rules, gliding through Reynoldsí precision with hand-held curiosity. Day-Lewis reportedly found humor in Andersonís screenplay that except for one testy line of dialogue escapes me.

Day-Lewis delivers another acutely realized performance, if not the last hurrah his legacy deserves. Day-Lewis is completely invested in Reynoldsí tiniest habits and grandest postures, revealing as much about Reynolds through them as Andersonís dialogue.

Phantom Thread canít entirely thwart Andersonís directing gift. An opening sequence of Reynolds and his dressmaking staff beginning their day in the House of Woodcock is brisk, nearly nonverbal exposition. Reynoldsí breakfast order flirtation with Alma is slyly paced, making each smug smile and blush count. A dinner fiasco wearing Reynoldsí latest creation is a welcome change of pace.

Yet Andersonís movie succeeds only in such episodes, passing flashes of inspiration like those design sketches Reynolds is always doodling. Heís a creature of abnormal precision, just like the Method actor playing him and the filmmaker creating him. Phantom Thread is a lush, listless indulgence for both artists. Not a good fit.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

   
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