Review: Phantom Thread (aka Daniel Day-Lewis final film)
Is there anything more preposterous than a Hollywood actor announcing his retirement?
Yet when the news dropped this past June that Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (December 25) would be Daniel Day-Lewis’s final film, we got the sinking feeling that he really meant it.
“We all probably have a shelf life,” Day-Lewis, now 60, confided in the recent HBO documentary Spielberg. “We probably go past that shelf life, most of us, without even knowing it.” Don’t expect a victory lap or any coy talk-show confessionals. There will likely be just one last majestic performance and then goodnight. He won’t be hanging around to play Batman’s butler.
Day-Lewis, the son of Cecil Day-Lewis, a poet laureate of England, and the son-in-law of the playwright Arthur Miller, is the foremost Method actor of his generation, exalted for his all-consuming preparation (he remained in character, bound to a wheelchair, during the filming of My Left Foot) and his spectacular range (in one year, he played a cockney thug in My Beautiful Laundrette and a fey aristocrat in A Room with a View).
But he has long hinted at the toll of such dedication, and his need to decompress. In a 1988 interview, Day-Lewis said, “I’ve felt shrunken by the experience [of acting in film]. What you give, constantly, is not returned in any form—not sufficiently, anyway.” He later spent ten months in Florence learning to make shoes with the renowned cobbler Stefano Bemer.
Day-Lewis stands apart from even the best of his contemporaries by virtue of his extreme selectivity. While De Niro now works like he’s paying off a loan shark’s vig, Day-Lewis turns his every movie into an event. Once you play Lincoln, what’s left?
That’s what we’ll miss about him: the anticipation of a new performance, knowing the impossibly high standard he sets for himself, the expectation that he’ll inhabit each role with such complete devotion that we won’t be able to look away.
There is no better director to manage his exit than Anderson, who memorably collaborated with Day-Lewis on There Will Be Blood, in which he played the drink it all up, milkshake-loving, bare-knuckled wildcatter Daniel Plainview.
Phantom Thread strikes an entirely different emotional note. Day-Lewis is Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock, a master British dressmaker in the 1950s who is in many ways a reflection of the actor himself — an artisan of exquisite taste, skill, and dedication who’s not only subsumed by his work but held prisoner by it, too. (Anderson likely sees something of himself in the character as well.)
When we get a close-up of Day-Lewis’s fingers, riddled with calluses from sewing, there is no doubt that he earned them honestly. And yet the performance is sly rather than bravura.
Ultimately, Phantom Thread is a perversely romantic portrait of a man who dares to envision a life beyond his obsessive commitment to his craft.
It’s hard to imagine a more graceful and fitting send-off for Day-Lewis, the last of the Method-acting Jedi Knights.