Beloved actor serves up a "preposterous fairytale" as his swansong
Ten years from now, when we look back at 2017, we will recall it as a particularly anxious year that nevertheless threw up some extraordinarily good films.
Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name and The Shape Of Water will all take their places among the critics top choices. But Phantom Thread, starring Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis, will be lucky if it merits an honorable mention.
Day Lewis plays the overdressed and improbably named Reynolds Woodcock, a very rich and very successful dress designer in austere 1950s Britain. The film hints that he suffers from some significant emotional problems, but we are not told what they are at first.
Then a very attractive girl comes into his life and everything changes. We know this because Jonny Greenwood's already thunderous score swells even further.
Woodcock, we discover, is a gifted man-child who lives in a cosseted world that is overseen and fiercely protected by fleet of adoring women who surround and enable him.
But in 2017 any narrative that shows us capable women subordinating themselves to volatile men should probably make us do a double take, although Phantom Thread isn't asking us for that.
Into Woodcock's impeccably tidy life comes the fiery and unpredictable Alma (Vicky Krieps, 34) who as well as being almost half his age (Day Lewis is 60) also threatens to upend his insuperable complacency.
How much you invest in whether Alma is successful in her aims depends on how much sympathy you have generated for her and Day Lewis' frosty characters. The first thing we learn about Woodcock is that he runs his fashion house with an attention to detail and decorum that reminded me of Christopher Plummer's salty Captain Von Trapp in The Sound Of Music (a comparison the filmmakers probably hope we don't make).
All that was missing from Woodcock's repertoire was a silver whistle to call his gaggle of elderly seamstresses to heel after they had hung up their overcoats.
The camera follows Woodcock through his carefully choreographed day asking us to admire his rarefied world of extraordinary privilege. In scene after scene the camera lingers over the ravishing materials he fashions into architectural dresses for the top tiers of the British establishment, who wear them like battle armor to the most exclusive social events of the year.
It really doesn't get more ritzy than this bub (actual princesses sashay into Woodcock's fashion house and are curtseyed at by the dazzled staff). We are clearly supposed to share in their wonder and amazement but I resisted, wondering what all this rapture over bespoke lace was in service to, wondering what the point of it all was?
Later Woodcock and Alma attend a stuffy social event where the heiress who pays to keeps them both in taffeta dons perhaps the greatest dress that the stuffy designer has ever produced.
We are told that this sad-eyed heiress is marrying again and we discern that she is somewhere in her late 60's. She tells us she's not as beautiful as she would like to be, then she proceeds to get roaring drunk, passing out from boredom and sheer unhappiness.
The film clearly wants to judge this poor rich woman and consider her an silly ogre, but I thought she was the first recognizably human character the film had introduced us to. To Alma and Woodcock she is simply an affront, an unworthy vessel for all of their their efforts, leading them to conclude that the rich woman who paid for the dress (and who underwrites most of their prosperity) is actually undeserving of their beautiful efforts.
So Alma leads Woodcock (who is now her lover) to the heiresses' chambers late at night and there she forcibly rescues his work from the body of his still passed out patron, because making a living is not a consideration for either of them when a bigger principle is at stake. Hoo boy.
If this sounds like something that would happen in a sort of fractured fairy tale it's probably meant to. Phantom Thread fancies itself as a parable as well as a film. And as the film progresses we see the lengths that Alma has to go to, the humiliations she has to endure, to service Woodcock's genius and stay in his life.
Why she submits herself to this cycle of humiliation and abuse is a very good question, one the film doesn't really answer. Is it the money, the glamour, or the chance to rescue this poor man-child from the self-imposed prison he has placed himself in?
At one point Woodcock reveals to Alma that he keeps a lock of his mother's hair secreted inside the breast pocket of his suit to remind him where he comes from, the great debt he owes to his departed mother, and behind that to make a sort of evocative statement about mortality and art (I don't really know, I was too busy being creeped out whilst Alma was being enchanted).
We don't learn very much about Alma, of course. To the filmmaker's it's not necessary. First we meet her as an awkward waitress at a seaside hotel. Then she opens her mouth and we discover that she talks in the clipped tones of an aristocrat. That surprise is further compounded when it turns out she isn't even British. It's a neat trick all that, the upper class accent, the pre-Raphaelite beauty, the unlikely foreign waitress ready to change Woodcock's stultifying life.
Please be aware that I went into Phantom Thread with an open mind. I admire and respect Daniel Day Lewis' storied career, conscious that he has starred in some era-defining features like My Beautiful Laundrette, My Left Foot and In The Name Of The Father.
Day Lewis is, I am the first to say, a very formidable artist. That's why I found it baffling that he has elected to appear in this pretentious nonsense, given that he has already announced it will be his swan song in film acting.
2017 is a year in which very powerful men in the film industry like Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen and Dustin Hoffman have each been charged by accusers of as abusing that power to further their own ends at the expense of less fortunate, usually much younger women.
It seems a shame this preposterous fairytale of what a gifted woman is willing to do to supplement the career of the man she loves makes its debut in this context, because it feels like its sexual politics belong to the 1950’s, although it's a story old as time I suppose.
But that doesn't mean it's a good story.