Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) is one of the top British fashion designers of the nineteen-fifties, and his gowns are much sought after by the richest women in society, but he is extremely particular about his working methods. His closest collaborator is his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who takes care of the administrative side of the business, allowing him to let his keenly honed talent enough space to breathe. But while he is a valued member of the rich wives and daughters' entourage, he really needs a muse to fire up his inspirations, and he happens to find another in the shape of Continental waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) who he meets in a tea shop...
Phantom Thread was one of director Paul Thomas Anderson's character studies, where he would obsessively examine every angle of those peopling his story to build up some kind of commentary, in this case on the creative urge. It was very well received and won a cult following, yet perhaps was a little too chilly to find mainstream acceptance, for spending over two hours in the company of Lewis sounding like an English Werner Herzog was two hours too many for quite a lot of the audience. There was no getting away from it: he was creepy in this performance, which he claimed would be his last for the screen, resembling at times a vampire draining the life force from women.
But if you could imagine a vampire who finds a willing partner to drain, then ends up not being too bothered when she brings out the garlic (or mushrooms, in this case), then you would have a concept of this reserved, unsettling experience and what it had to offer. Although females are irresistibly drawn to Reynolds, it is more to do with the lure of the fashion world and Anderson apparently did not have a very high opinion of haute couture, even in its British form from over sixty years before he directed this. That distance from the subject was another reason there was a clinical air about the movie which meant some work had to be done to find it in any way endearing.
Well, endearing is probably the wrong word, but to have any affection for these remote characters you would have to find them as fascinating, in a bugs under the microscope way, as Anderson and Lewis did (they collaborated closely on the screenplay). Yet take the names of the characters, like a foreign visitor to not only Britain but also the past had come along to give his impression of what folks were like there, and ended up sounding like a parody, only there were precious few laughs to be gleaned from watching this. To add to that sense of spoof, Reynolds even saw a ghost in his delirium part of the way through the story simply because it was England, the most haunted region of the globe (supposedly), which was less mysterious and more a bit silly and lapsing into a touristy version of the land.
So gallons of tea were drunk, clipped tones were implemented, and our hero (if you could call him that) gets irritated when toast is not buttered properly or Alma pours her drinks with too high a distance from the cup or glass. It should have been funny, yet it was difficult to discern where the humour began and the serious contemplation of what you lose when you give over your life to your art started. Alma, once his inspiration, turns into his Achilles heel as she is welcomed into his home, adorned as a model, and wins his heart and marriage proposal, but for someone who is so exacting and precise about how everything should be just so, controlling women in a manner apart from his dress design proves beyond him, and he cracks up. Not cracks up laughing, that's not in his personality, so this is where the ghost enters into it and it leads up to an ending that is quietly macabre yet farfetched to say the least. Interesting as an academic exercise, but Phantom Thread never took off as entertainment. Music by Johnny Greenwood.