The Phantom Thread. A Sewist’s Review

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and starring Daniel day Lewis in what he claims to be his last performance on film, The Phantom thread is part love story, and part portrayal of the obsessions that drive an artistic genius of  the world of post WWII Haute Couture. The Phantom Thread is a feast for the eyes, with its sumptuous sets and costumes, as well as a feast for the ears. The soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead, is hauntingly beautiful. The music guides the viewer through this film, and adds much gravitas to it.

Daniel Day Lewis plays the world famous English fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, head of London’s House Of Woodcock. His character is obsessively controlling and lives a measured and ordered life with his sister and constant companion Cyril, played by Leslie Manville, who runs the business end of The House of Woodcock. The relationships between Reynolds and Cyril, and later with Alma, bring to mind the ones between Lawrence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and Mrs Danvers in the 1940’s  Alfred Hitchcock film, Rebecca.

In the Phantom Thread, the arrival of Reginald’s new muse of the moment and lover, the opinionated and noisy eating country waitress Alma, upsets the order of his world. Their relationship takes some interesting twists and turns, which I will not reveal. Let’s just say I will never again look at a wild mushroom without thinking of this film.

Reynolds’ monologue during his first meeting and fitting session with Alma, describes the making of his mother’s wedding gown, and the superstitions and lore surrounding sewing a wedding gown. He tells Alma, played by Vicky Kriegs, the story of sewing his mother’s gown at the age of sixteen for her second wedding, as his own father died many years earlier. He describes how his evil and ‘monstrously ugly’ nanny would not help him sew the dress, because she was afraid she would never get married if she touched someone else’s gown. So Woodcock spent months on his own, hunched over his dress. A true labor of love. His sister   Cyril ended up helping him sew it. When Alma later asks him what ever happened to Cyril, if she ever married, he answers with a haunting no. Maybe the old wives tale was true, after all. And not surprisingly, nether did the nanny.

There is another scene when Reynolds becomes ill and passes out on the princess of Belgium’s immaculate and complete wedding gown on its dress form. The situation is a true emergency. The seamstresses spend the entire night hand sewing the gown’s ruined parts, and Alma finds one of the secret messages that Reynold  has hidden in the gown when she is stitching up the new hem.

The scenes of sewing and the fitting and design were a delight to watch, and I wish there had been more.  I could feel the fear of all the seamstresses when they didn’t think they could fix the dress in time for the princess to pick it up in time.  I have felt similar fear, when I once made a mistake on a custom gown. Although not on such a grande scale.

The visions of Daniel Day Lewis in his bow tie, surrounded by his couture seamstresses all wearing lab coats brings to life the the world of Haute Couture in the 1950’s, but is also at the same time clinical looking. Sewing is not only an art but it requires fastidious skill at this level. Reynolds is like a surgeon, surrounded by nurses. I love this idea of donning a white coat while sewing. His scalpel is his scissors.

There is a dark feeling that permeates the film. An image of Woodcock’s mother comes to visit him in the infamous wedding gown. The music enforces the ominous feeling

The dresses themselves remind me a bit of Charles James, with their sculptural and structured qualities. The rich fabrics and colors and use of lace are stunning. I am rooting for Mark Bridges to get the Oscar for costume design for this film.

I could not take my eyes off Daniel Day Lewis in the film. He was so controlled, so obsessive about his art, yet so debonair and handsome. Some say his character approached his art similar to how the actor himself approaches his roles. A stunning attention to detail. He is perfect older and elegant gentleman. Who I would envision a great Couturier of that time to be.

However, I found the love story part to be a bit off kilter, but the rest of the film makes up for that. I also find the archetypes of the older man with the much younger woman to be a little cliched. Why is it always OK for the man to be old yet the actress playing opposite him can never be over thirty? In this movie though, I do see why this is done. Muses are usually much younger. I was actually more interested in the actual work shown of sewing, and scenes of the artist at work than I was by the romance.

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  1. Brenda says

    I had written this one off b/c I’m so tired of the successful older man/beautiful young ingenue romance thing as well — but thanks to your review, I think I’ll go see it just for the sewing scenes!

  2. Sandy Osborne says

    Thanks for the review, Justine. I haven’t been to the movies in ages because nothing has interested me. I didn’t even know what this movie was about. But now I want to go see it, just for the sewing scenes and the costumes 🙂