This is a very strange movie, as one might intuit from its odd title. Paul Thomas Anderson is nothing if not unpredictable, and his latest effort bears no obvious resemblance to his other work except for his keen interest in obsessive characters (think of There Will Be Blood and The Master). On the plus side, Phantom Thread creates a very specific, immersive world and feels tangibly real. It also provides Daniel Day-Lewis a role he can sink his teeth into.

Day-Lewis plays a self-absorbed fashion designer in 1950s London named Reynolds Woodcock. He lives and works with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) in an elegant townhouse where the tiniest change to their daily regimen throws him off-course. It is Cyril’s job to make sure things run smoothly, which they generally do. She also keeps a close watch on her brother’s mistresses, who (we gather) come and go on a regular basis.

But his latest acquisition, a foreign-born waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), has staying power and a level of determination that the Woodcocks have never encountered before. She doesn’t just disrupt the designer’s routine: she wants to possess him and will stop at nothing to capture his heart. She even wins over the cynical Cyril.

Phantom Thread takes us inside the workings of a high-end design house in this period, with a regular staff of seamstresses who work in almost total silence. They know what is expected of them and execute Woodcock’s designs with meticulous attention to detail under his watchful eye. His most valued clients receive special attention.

Woodcock has sexual desires, but they ebb and flow depending on his mood and the pressures of work. Alma has a room adjacent to his, but knocking on his door does not necessarily gain her entrance.

All of this is laid out in leisurely fashion, in a hushed tone that is accompanied by elegant music on the soundtrack. (The movie opens with a lengthy rendition of Victor Young’s “My Foolish Heart,” written for the 1949 movie of the same name and played by Oscar Peterson.) Classical music dominates the picture, along with original scoring by Jonny Greenwood.

At the core of all this is what Anderson describes as a gothic romance: an intense, sometimes perverse, attraction between Alma and Reynolds that flirts with black comedy at times. Krieps is a major discovery who has worked primarily in German films and television; we’re certain to see more of her after this showcase.

One could do worse than to stare at these actors’ faces as they convey a variety of subtly expressed emotions, but Phantom Thread is so insular that one has to wonder where it is headed and why. One can admire the performances, the production design (by Mark Tildesley) and of course the costumes by longtime Anderson colleague Mark Bridges. But I’m not sure that the odd, off-putting story is worth all this lavish attention to detail.

Depicting obsession is a trap for any filmmaker. He or she defies the audience to remain interested in someone whose behavior is abnormal. Having Daniel Day-Lewis portraying the character is an enormous asset, but it may not be enough. It wasn’t for me.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024