Back in 1999, after the release of his third feature film Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson reckoned he’d reached his peak. “I guess the way that I really feel is that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I’ll ever make,” he told a reporter.
And he was right – in a way. Magnolia was the best movie of a certain type that he’d ever make; the natural endpoint suggested by his debut, Hard Eight, and the purest form of his early, warm, crackling style.
But then came a seismic shift. With There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s humour and energy transformed into something darker but no less gripping – a stripped back, formally innovative kind of harshness that he honed and strengthened with The Master. Some filmmakers spend their whole career trying to perfect one style – in less than 20 years, Anderson perfected two.
Day-Lewis has never been better.
Now, with his latest film Phantom Thread, Anderson has married both of his selves. The Daniel Day-Lewis starring masterpiece has the heart and humour of Magnolia, and the great, almost unbearable sadness of The Master. It is vicious and funny in equal measure; a gothic romance about perfection, and vulnerability, and the intersection of sickness and love. It also so happens to be one of the most astounding and perfectly realised films of the last few years.
The plot is simple. Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a fashion designer-cum-megalomaniac who boasts a particularly intense relationship with his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville) and a striking, bottomless appetite, meets waitress Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps). The pair are perfectly matched – Alma is as brooding and determined as Reynolds, and, at least initially, seems able to control his almost toddler-like tantrums. But before long, their relationship is forced to adapt and evolve under the pressure of Woodcock’s demands, and the film flits from delicate comedy, to drama, to something altogether more sinister.
Day-Lewis has never been better. He embodies Woodcock wholly, from his flutey, lilting voice to the gentle, gliding way he moves his hands. But this is no one man show, and he is supported perfectly by the film’s other players – Krieps, her eyes burning, proves an admirable sparring partner, while the icy Manville, a Mike Leigh regular, is all tight lips and occasional, expertly controlled flashes of softness.
Phantom Thread is a collection of contrasting pleasures: a film that works emotionally, academically, tactilely. There are times it rewards the way running a hand across velvet rewards; moments that engage the heart, others that engage the head, and still more that engage the gut. It feels like another endpoint for Anderson – a summation of years of lived experience. One can only dream of what he might do next.