Courtesy of Focus Features

Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread.

February 7, 2018

The Phantom of Daniel Day-Lewis’s Acting Career

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I really did not want to see Phantom Thread. And honestly, I am not entirely glad I did. But I wanted to see every movie nominated for Best Picture, and was intrigued that Daniel Day-Lewis announced directly after production that it was his last movie ever.

Phantom Thread is set in 1950s post-war London. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a famous dressmaker of the British elite. One had to be worthy, both economically and in terms of character, to wear Woodcock’s dresses. Woodcock lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who understands his every need and work routine. On a trip, Woodcock meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), and quickly forms a relationship with her. Alma soon becomes another one of Woodcock’s muses, but she is different than the others. Alma challenges Woodcock, and the film largely centers on their evolving and complex relationship.

There is a lot I admired about the movie. It tackles the dilemma of how to love while being yourself. The film was very unconventional, in a beautiful and exquisite way. It also illustrates how often men or women who are called “geniuses” in their field believe that they can get away with anything. Woodcock is immensely rude and needy, but everyone puts up with him because of his dressmaking talent. Without giving away any spoilers, I urge viewers to pay close attention to the role of food in the film. It is woven into the film in an intricate and ominous way, and eventually manifests itself in the climax of the plot.

I do wish the film focused more on the dresses. My biggest complaint, however, is that none of the characters were likeable. I was never cheering for any one. The plot develops into a strange ending, and leaves viewers with an odd taste in their mouth. Woodcock is arrogant and high-maintenance, and Alma is truly bizarre. It’s hard to sympathize with either character.

Perhaps this lack of likeability is why the film led to Day-Lewis’s retirement. Day-Lewis famously takes acting, specifically method acting, to his own unique level. For his Oscar-winning performance in My Left Foot, Day-Lewis essentially gave himself cerebral palsy to fit the character: he stayed in a wheelchair and was spoon-fed by crew members for months before and throughout all of the production of the film. Before his role in Last of the Mohicans, Day-Lewis spent six months in the wild. Similarly, before his role in The Boxer, he tattooed his hands and trained for 18 months for his role.

Because of his scrupulous preparation, Day-Lewis takes years off between roles. At the end of every movie, Day-Lewis describes a “terrible sadness on the last day of shooting.” Day-Lewis keeps a bit of each character with him, for example, he still competitively boxes to this day and is obsessed with the TV show Naked and Afraid.

Dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock must have affected Day-Lewis in a way incomparable to other characters. Some believe Day-Lewis merely does not want to experience the emotional toll at the end of a movie again, but I hypothesize that it might have more to do with the Phantom Thread character itself. Day-Lewis said that he had no intentions to ever watch the film, a decision connected to his choice to stop acting: “But it’s not why the sadness came to stay. That happened during the telling of the story, and I don’t really know why.” Becoming Reynolds Woodcock seems to have affected Day-Lewis in ways even he does not understand, and really may have caused him to end his acting career. Day-Lewis laughed at rumors that he would now become a dressmaker, though he did train for months and design his own dresses for the film. He plans to box, create shoes and explore a number of other passions in his new life off-screen. Day-Lewis has said that ending acting is very liberating, and will change how he sees the world.

Considering the Academy Awards are in less than a month, it is hard not to compare Phantom Thread to everything else nominated. For Best Picture, I would be genuinely surprised if it won given the other eight movies nominated. For cinematography, it was certainly beautiful and elegant but not quite as magnificent as Call Me By Your Name, Dunkirk or The Shape of Water. Paul Thomas Anderson has a chance of winning Best Director. He is not my top pick, but he certainly did a stellar job with this quirky and thought-provoking film. The real chances for Oscar victories, however, lie with Day-Lewis (for Best Actor), Manville (for Best Supporting Actress), and Mark Bridges (for Best Costume Design).

Certainly my favorite part of Phantom Thread and a true Oscar contender is the original score. Jonny Greenwood’s music was playing for 90 of the 130 minutes of the film, making the equally lavish yet eerie music a character of its own.

Though Phantom Thread certainly left me feeling “weird,” for lack of a better term, it is worth seeing. Day-Lewis is outstanding in his final performance, and the story is both a subtle period-piece and a complex, meticulous drama.

Becky Frank is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]