Why ‘Phantom Thread’ Is the Perfect Final Film for Daniel Day-Lewis
“It’s a decision made with conviction, but not full understanding.”
Those are the words of Daniel Day-Lewis, describing his imminent retirement from acting to The New York Times. He refused to explain any further; his previous official statement on the subject called it a “private decision” and vowed there would be no “further comment on this subject.” And thus far, there hasn’t been — unless you count Phantom Thread.
Unless something changes, Phantom Thread will be Day-Lewis’ last performance as a screen actor. It is not the farewell most would have scripted for him. Day-Lewis has won three Academy Awards (for My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood, and Lincoln), been nominated three more times, and become almost as famous for his rigorous preparations for roles as he has for the characters themselves.
His Method intensity is legendary. Playing a man with cerebral palsy in My Left Foot, he “insisted on remaining in a wheelchair between takes and being fed by the crew.” Before shooting The Last of the Mohicans, he learned how to “track and skin animals, build canoes, fight with tomahawks, and fire and reload a 12-pound flintlock,” which he carried with him everywhere, “including to lunch with his family on Christmas.” On the set of Gangs of New York, he got sick when he refused to wear a heavy coat in cold weather because heavy coats didn’t exist in the film’s 19th century setting. One wonders what would have happened if he’d ever played Jesus Christ.
Day-Lewis completely transforms himself for most of his roles; totally different physiques, hair, and accents every single time. By that standard, Phantom Thread is a surprising farewell. To play crusty fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, Day-Lewis did have to learn about the world of British couture in the 1950s and teach himself to sew, but his research was far less punishing and extreme than his typical level of artistic masochism. He didn’t have sleep out in the woods for a month or learn how to butcher wild animals. He spoke in something close to his real English accent. Still, even if it’s understated by his standards, his work in Phantom Thread brilliantly supports the film’s central ideas. I hope Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t retire. But if he does, Phantom Thread is a perfect last film because it explains why he quit.
His Reynolds Woodcock is one of the great couture designers of his era. (The next section of this essay contains some spoilers.) His work enables him to create a life sealed off from the outside world and tailored to his every whim and need, no matter how outrageous or petty. Any deviation from his strictly maintained routine must be eliminated — including the beautiful women that serve as his muses.
His latest live-in lover and creative influence is a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), whom he meets on a getaway while his sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville) dumps his last girlfriend. Reynolds is immediately smitten with Alma, but as soon as he brings her home to the House of Woodcock, she proves to be more distracting as inspiring. While Alma seems shy and soft-spoken at first, she’s a lot more strong-willed than she appears. A power struggle emerges, with Reynolds chafing at Alma’s assertiveness and Alma refusing to kowtow to Reynolds’ persnickety demands. So she does what any woman would do: She poisons him with wild mushrooms.
The battle between Reynolds and Alma continues even after they’re married. It boils down to a fight over priorities: Reynolds wants a woman to serve him and otherwise stay out of his way. Work comes first; everything else is a distant second. Alma wants a serious relationship, a more balanced life, and, someday, a family. In the film’s final scenes, she gets what she wants, with Reynolds happily lying in her lap, hungry for more of Alma’s special mushrooms while she dreams of a future together filled with children and more beautiful dresses.
It is hard not to watch Phantom Thread and draw a parallel between Reynolds Woodcock, the obsessively focused designer, and Daniel Day-Lewis, the obsessively focused actor. For Lincoln, he kept using the President’s voice “even after filming was over.” He answered to the name “Mr. President” on set, and British members of the cast were asked not to speak with their natural accents so they wouldn’t throw him off. Can you imagine trying to have a cordial, pleasant breakfast with that dude?
You can argue that Day-Lewis is just the actor, not the author of Phantom Thread, and that these similarities are coincidental. But on the DGA’s Director’s Cut podcast, Paul Thomas Anderson revealed that he and Day-Lewis developed Phantom Thread together; after they agreed to collaborate on the movie, they batted ideas back and forth for several years. Anderson would write pages of the script and send them to Day-Lewis for feedback. DDL was even the one who came up with the name Reynolds Woodcock for the protagonist.
Strip away the luxurious fashion, the extravagant period details, the lush cinematography, and the hint of kink in the relationship, and here’s what you see in Phantom Thread: A film about how hard it is to live with a difficult artist. On their first date, Reynolds insists he’s a “confirmed bachelor” who’s not meant to get married. He resists almost the entire film, until he’s finally worn down by Alma’s charms (and his love of being cared for after almost dying of food poisoning). Phantom Thread is part apology, part promise to do better. And it’s exactly the kind of movie that a guy who’s quitting a job that makes him insufferable to spend more time with his family would produce.
Day-Lewis is as ferocious about protecting the details of his private life as he is about learning to play a nativistic gangster. We don’t know much about his family beyond the fact that he is married (to filmmaker Rebecca Miller) and that he has several children. We don’t need Daniel Day-Lewis to tell us more. Phantom Thread says the rest, with conviction and full understanding.