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‘Phantom Thread’ a grand, perverse human tale

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Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps appear in the tantalizing “Phantom Thread.” (Courtesy Focus Features)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” is one of his best movies, eschewing the big ideas of his recent films and returning to actual characters.

“Phantom Thread” is set largely within one great, palatial house in London of the 1950s, and though many women move through its doors and up and down its grand staircases, the story focuses mainly on three characters.

They are: dress-making fashion titan Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), his sister and business manager Cyril (Lesley Manville), and his new conquest Alma (Vicky Krieps).

Even when deceptively hiding their desires, as if underneath expensive, lavish fabric, the characters are consistently rich in detail and nuance.

Early on, Anderson demonstrated a gift for nuanced characters, taking popular Hollywood stars — Burt Reynolds in “Boogie Nights,” Tom Cruise in “Magnolia” and Adam Sandler in “Punch-Drunk Love” — and eliciting their finest-ever performances.

His subsequent movies, however, seemed geared more toward saying something, than satisfying. The epic “There Will Be Blood,” featured Day-Lewis in a fun, highly quotable role, but also flat, like a cartoon character.

Then, “The Master” was ambitious, but mystifying. “Inherent Vice” was just incoherent.

Happily, with “Phantom Thread” Anderson has returned to something more human, inviting viewers inside, rather than trying to impress.

There are no messages, twists or moments of hysteria in “Phantom Thread.” It’s gloriously sublime. Many long moments are simply spent admiring the drape of cloth against cloth, against the shapes of bodies.

Mr. Woodcock is highly successful, elegant and skilled. He dresses royalty, famous actresses and the upper crust — with great poetry and beauty.

Recalling his fine work in Philip Kaufman’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Day-Lewis plays him with an artist’s soul, confident and fastidious and masculine, a born seducer.

When Alma clumsily takes his breakfast order in a small countryside cafe, he is coolly smitten. He brings her to the house and breaks out a swatch of rare material he had been saving to make her a dress.

An earlier scene with an earlier girlfriend demonstrates how quickly Woodcock tires of his women, and how easily they begin to get under his nerves, interfering with his carefully established routines.

Alma may be common, but she’s clever and not about to let that sorry fate happen to her.

Meanwhile, the starchy, austere Cyril carefully issues sharp, icy line readings designed to wrest the upper hand in any situation.

Throughout the movie, Anderson relies on Jonny Greenwood’s anxious, mounting score (which won a San Francisco Film Critics Circle award) to help advance the narrative.

The movie even begins to feel almost Hitchcockian, with suggested elements of “Rebecca,” “Vertigo” and “Marnie,” as well as a darkly humorous touch.

It would be a shame to say much more, but to sum up, it’s a pleasure to watch this grand, exquisite costume movie turn delightfully perverse and mischievous.

It’s also Anderson’s funniest movie since “Punch-Drunk Love.” That movie was about the power of love, but “Phantom Thread” goes deeper and darker with its mix of power and love.

Phantom Thread
Three and a half stars
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Rated R
Running time 2 hours, 10 minutes

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