The second teaming of Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis is often beguiling and befuddling as well as the first British foray for the idiosyncratic, fastidious writer-director who has captivated and polarized audiences.
Phantom Thread may yield the same type of returns of Anderson's Inherent Vice or Punch-Drunk Love, but it does have the incomparable early sexagenarian Day-Lewis looking to cement another Oscar nod as eminent English dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock with much of the "action" occurring in his workshop. An orderly existence in 1956 London includes faithful, but similarly peremptory and unwelcomingly curt sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, who provides more shading along the way).
The nattily attired, if temperamental committed bachelor couturier who supplies the European upper crust is quite demanding and tests the etiquette of those around him. The attention given to his evening wear with messages and hair stitched into hems hasn't been seen like this on celluloid, but the disciplined but sensitive perfectionist looks to get out of an artistic rut with an unlikely afflatus.
In the rustic environs while having breakfast Woodcock (the surname carefully chosen) spots something besides the physical in the modest, if faintly maladroit reddish-brown coiffed waitress Alma (a surprising Vicky Krieps, a Luxembourg native, whose character happens to have the same name as a master of suspense's wife). From the candor coquettishness leading to dinner and a fitting in a gown, it's Reynolds wrapping the willful, mysterious lady as his enticing acquisition.
Some veteran cineastes will find connections to Golden Age melodramas, like 'Rebecca' (which starred Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier), at least in the earlier sections under what seems like a stuffy albatross. Until the blossoming relationship encroaches on the likenesses of siblings which empowers Alma beyond ardor, unleashing a gratification of erotic cruelty as an understanding comes from need and desire, notably in part where creative application is concerned.
Ill-treatment from driven auteurs isn't really new, but in his method proficiency Day-Lewis distinguishes the role with uncanny verisimilitude to engage the senses, making the most of what he's given. Even if it's not of the dominating quality as when he embodied Abraham Lincoln for Steven Spielberg (The Post) or sociopathic oilman Daniel Plainview for Anderson in There Will Be Blood.
Phantom Thread does have comedic life to spare as perverse and absurd as it may morph narratively from an exquisite lavishness. But, with amazing costume work by Mark Bridges, appropriately crisp lensing by Anderson (without credit), and especially Jonny Greenwood's extravagantly ornate use of piano and strings, the subdued becomes uniquely stitched with the pungent piquancy of a breakout Krieps.