Not A Muse
I suppose we shouldn't make the distinction between an artist's process, product, and productivity, but I can't help it I'm afraid. I accept that spending twenty years on a brilliant, perfect novel is a worthwhile pursuit – how could it not be? – but my personal admiration really goes to people who crank out two or three pretty good books or films every year. Perhaps it's just because my own creative impulse tends towards a long, drawn-out process, deeply influenced by my massive innate laziness. Hey ho. Perhaps as a result of this, I've never been a fully paid-up member of the Daniel Day-Lewis fan club, largely because he seems to me to take a rather precious attitude to his job. Give me someone like Michael Caine, who in the Eighties would turn up in any old rubbish just because he liked to keep working, any day.
Oh well. My days of being chased down the street by outraged mobs for daring to criticise Day-Lewis for being so pernickety about his roles may be coming to an end, anyway, as the great man has apparently announced his retirement from acting, following the release of Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread. (So much for my hopes of one day seeing him play Dr Doom in the proverbial good Fantastic Four movie.) If this indeed marks the last we see of him, he is at least departing the stage in some style and with a degree of appropriacy.
In Phantom Thread Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a high-society dressmaker in the London of the 1950s. He is the creative spirit at the heart of the House of Woodcock (is Anderson aware this sounds vaguely and inappropriately amusing? Hmmm), with his intimidating sister (Lesley Manville) handling the business and organisational aspects of the business.
Following the successful completion of an important commission, Woodcock goes on a short break in the country, where he encounters and instantly smitten by Alma (Vicky Krieps), who when he meets her is working as a waitress. She is captivated by the attentions of such a wealthy, distinguished and creative man, and soon moves to London to be a part of his life.
However, we are already aware that Woodcock is something of a serial monogamist, having seen him getting his sister to expedite the departure of a previous flame at the start of the film. Once his initial ardour cools somewhat, however, Alma finds living with Woodcock to be increasingly difficult – he is demanding, discourteous, given to black moods, and strongly objects to any disruption to the routines with which he has surrounded himself. It seems inevitable that their relationship is doomed – but perhaps Alma has strong feelings of her own about this, not to mention plans of her own...
Well, as I have mentioned here in the past, I became a lifetime member of the Paul Thomas Anderson fan club the first time I watched Magnolia, an almost-inconceivable 18 years ago, and with Phantom Thread it is a pleasant surprise to come across a film of his which is (after a couple of impressive but challenging-to-watch offerings) genuinely accessible and satisfying. The story is relatively simple, but the film nevertheless raises some complex issues: Woodcock's talent is undeniable, but does this justify him being quite so callous towards everyone around him? Isn't this just another story about a privileged man being enabled in his pampered lifestyle by the women around him? At first it seems so, but then things become more ambiguous. The third act of the story sees events take a deeply surprising, and indeed rather twisted turn, but there's no sense of the film taking a particular moral stand, and it's never completely dour or heavy – there are regular moments of black comedy, usually courtesy of Woodcock's acid tongue. Anderson evokes the period setting with his usual skill, and there is a memorable and effective score from Jonny Greenwood, too.
It is, of course, driven along by Day-Lewis, who brings all his intensity and charisma to the role. One can see why he has been nominated for so many awards for this performance; then again, he could wander by in the background of a scene and probably still get an Oscar nod. I find it a little surprising he even took this part, to be honest, given he's to some extent playing a version of himself – an intensely driven artistic talent, who gives himself over completely to his work, uncompromising with those around him. There's even a sequence where Woodcock hallucinates the presence of his dead mother, which can't help but recall the fact that Day-Lewis retired from theatre work after seeing a vision of his dead father while appearing on stage.
That said, it's not surprising that Lesley Manville has also been picking up nominations for her work as Woodcock's sister, for she is also extremely good. The thing which is somewhat baffling is that Vicky Krieps has not likewise been showing up on awards shortlists, for the film is largely a two-hander between her and Day-Lewis and she is every bit as convincing and memorable, giving a rather less mannered performance as well. It may just be that she's effectively a newcomer as far as Anglophone audiences are concerned, and awards are to some extent decided by your body of work as much as any single performance. (Filling out the mostly-British supporting cast are quite a few familiar and somewhat unexpected faces – people like Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson and Julia Davis all make appearances.)
This is a quiet, rather intense film, which does venture into quite dark and peculiar territory as it continues, and this may be why it doesn't seem to have set the box office on fire – it's lasted about a week in the cinemas where I live, which is usually a sign of a movie which is essentially tanking. This was obviously intended as Oscar-bait rather than a prospective blockbuster, but it's still a bit of a shame to see such a thoughtful and accomplished film failing to find an audience. Well worth seeking out, if you get the chance.