Some movies, like some clothes, are functional without being particularly beautiful — but some movies, like writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s luxurious and breathtaking “Phantom Thread,” are the equivalent of high fashion, allowing us to get lost in the beauty and fantasy of their folds.
Fashion is all Anderson’s main character, designer Reynolds Woodcock, wants to create in life. Woodcock, played with precise detail by Daniel Day-Lewis in what the actor has said is his final movie role, is the most sought-after designer in 1950s London, with a clientele that includes European royalty and American glamour icons. Everything in his life, from his pull-up socks to his relationship with his sister and business partner, Cyril (Lesley Manville), is well-ordered — all the better to let him create the perfect couture.
Part of Reynolds’ routine is to pick a young woman to be his muse and mistress, with the tacit understanding that the relationship will be temporary. When the girlfriend becomes too clingy or demanding, Cyril will step in and let the woman know that her time is up.
On a trip to the Woodcock family’s country home, Reynolds thinks he has found the next muse-of-the-moment in a waitress, a long, lean beauty named Alma (Vicky Krieps). He dotes on her, designing dresses with her figure in mind.
“I feel as if I have been looking for you for a very long time,” Reynolds tells Alma. But she is, at first, hesitant to enter his regimented world and even warns him against it. “Whatever you do,” she tells him, “do it carefully.”
Carefully is how Anderson, reuniting with Day-Lewis from the oil-and-revenge drama “There Will Be Blood,” positions Reynolds, Alma and Cyril through this quietly disturbing story. I say disturbing because there is plenty that happens in the movie’s second half that should not be divulged, except to say it aspires to — and often reaches — the psychological gamesmanship of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.”
Anderson pays obsessively close attention to every detail, from the small items Reynolds puckishly hides in the seams of his garments to the coterie of loyal seamstresses who put the finishing touches on everything made by the House of Woodcock. Anderson’s crew — namely costume designer Mark Bridges, production designer Mark Tildesley and composer Jonny Greenwood — make sure every stitch, and every frame, reveals new gems. (There’s no cinematographer credited in the film, as Anderson leads a rotating crew of camera operators.)
As usual with Day-Lewis, he delivers a masterclass in acting, fully inhabiting Reynolds in voice, mannerisms and passion. When he talks about the mysteries of fashion — “you can sew almost anything into the canvas of a coat,” Reynolds explains at one point — he intimates an unspoken history of creativity and accompanying heartbreak. In his quiet breakfasts with Cyril, and how Alma’s vivacious energy throws the sibling relationship out of balance, one sees a lifelong connection in just a few small gestures.
Manville, a veteran of Mike Leigh’s character studies (“Secrets and Lies,” “Another Year,” “Topsy Turvy,” “Vera Drake” and “Mr. Turner” among them), matches Day-Lewis note for note, making Cyril the no-nonsense enabler of Reynolds’ shifting moods. They are so well attuned that it’s a surprise to learn that this is their first movie together.
But a bigger surprise is Krieps, a Luxembourg native who has worked in European films for a decade but is largely unknown to American audiences. (She had a small role in the 2014 John Le Carré adaptation “A Most Wanted Man.”) Krieps not only keeps pace with Day-Lewis and Manville, but shows herself to be their equal in the constantly shifting power game in which Anderson has placed them.
And games are being played throughout “Phantom Thread.” At one point, Reynolds confronts Alma by asking, “What precisely is the nature of my game?” — a line that’s both menacing and a deliciously anachronistic reference to a Rolling Stones song. The game is afoot for these three characters, and Anderson is a cunning and nicely manipulative gamemaster.
Daniel Day-Lewis is a marvel as a fashion designer who finds his orderly life upended by his young lover in Paul Thomas Anderson’s beautiful and tricky drama.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Friday, Jan. 19.
Rating • R for language.
Running time • 130 minutes.