For the last thirty years there has been no greater on movie screens than the astonishing Daniel Day-Lewis, the only actor to win three Academy Awards for Best Actor. Day-Lewis first caught the attention of critics as the snob in A Room with a View (1986) and his gay punk in My Beautiful Laundrette (1987). His powerful performance as Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), quietly launched him as a leading man was lauded by critics and gradually audiences were becoming aware of him. With his stunning performance as Irish writer Christy Brown, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, he was suddenly a bona-fide film star with huge exceptions.
His act in ‘There Will be Blood’ is arguably the cinema’s greatest single performance by an actor. Speaking in a low rumble of a voice with inflections that made him sound like John Huston, he portrays an oil man out for himself, a man who holds humanity in contempt, seeking only wealth and power. Stalking the screen like a sleek panther, destroying all he touches it was an astounding performance that won the actor every major acting award, including the Academy Award, there was to win, one of the most acclaimed performances of all time.
And now we have what he says is his last film, Phantom Thread, which reunites he and director Paul Thomas Anderson, their previous work being perhaps the greatest film of the new century There Will Be Blood (2007). Though the films could not be more different, once again Day-Lewis displays an astounding depth, making clear he is the greatest working actor in modern film.
Set in 1955, the film explores the life of fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock, more specifically, women’s dress designer, who routinely uses women and discards them when he is through with them. Yet we wonder why he wants them in the first place, he seems to need a mother more than anything else, though his controlling sister seems to have a handle on his life. Into his life comes a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps) who seems to have an innate understanding of his sex drive and how they are alike in this way. Using her as his muse, as he has many before her, he seduces her by making her a dress, but then begins designing at a furious pace enraged when interrupted.
Though so well suited to each other in many ways it is inevitable the relationship turns toxic, yet fascinating to watch it break down. Day-Lewis is flawless as Woodcock (that name…), bringing to us a man obsessed with his art, but equally with his process and the women who inspire him. As with all his work, it is a very different character he gives us, unlike as always any previous creation. There is something dark underneath Reynolds, something dark, and he suggests that within moments of his first scene.
Krieps is a revelation as Alma, going toe to toe with arguably the cinema’s greatest actor, creating a deceptively simplistic woman who sees more, understands more that we realize.
Paul Thomas Anderson seems hellbent on never repeating himself with the exception of theme. Once again the gifted director/writer has made a powerful character study about deeply flawed yet gifted men, light years away from any of his previous films, though the flawed man remains a theme. Beautifully written and directed, it is a leisurely paced film, taking its time, as the characters draw us in.
Handsomely designed, it is a truly lovely film to look at, but as an entertainment, might be too much of an art film to make money. Hopefully it finds the audience it deserves. Day-Lewis has said this will be his last film, let’s hope not. What a tragedy if this man never acts again.