Watched: 7 February
Yet another richly-textured, atmospheric and constantly fascinating drama by Paul Thomas Anderson, centering on a woman (Vicky Krieps) who becomes both muse and lover – very much in that order – to a couturier (Daniel Day-Lewis) in 1950s London. Both newcomer and supposedly-retiring old hand deliver excellent performances; Krieps’ character Alma is a waitress who is presented as a naïve ingénue at first, meekly accepting a subordinate role or position within the House of Woodcock, the fashion house named after Day-Lewis’ temperamental, celebrated, fussy designer Reynolds Woodcock; this is also where he lives, petulantly demanding conditions of silence over breakfast, and also a place where her presence will begin to be felt more keenly. She gradually establishes a stronger, more dominant voice, and the psychodrama that surrounds her gradual increase in confidence (tied-in with episodes of poisoning) provides the film with a strong narrative… thread. Reynolds, meanwhile, is a man who has never come to terms with the death of his mother and is struggling to accept the fact that the fashion world is changing apace; he knows he is unable to keep up, and though his austere, lavish evening gowns are undoubtedly beautiful they already seem dated by mid-50s standards to my untrained eye. The world is moving on and leaving him behind, rendering him irrelevent.
The third major presence in the house – and the third great performance in this film – is Cyril, played superbly by Lesley Manville, who was nominated for an Academy Award but inexplicably always seemed to be on the periphery of this year’s Oscar conversation. She is a de facto mother for Reynolds, and manager of both his household and his House. Initially skeptical of (threatened by?) Alma, Cyril slowly, gradually accepts her presence… and eventually comes to admire her strength of character.
It’s a film that – despite its more immediately satisfying moments of tension and humour – is mostly made up of subtle scenes of character development that linger in the mind afterwards. It has great production design, a wonderful score by Jonny Greenwood (another Oscar robbery, though that kind of thing never raises my blood pressure, to be honest) and the 35mm print obviously looks fantastic; Anderson’s attempts to roughen or dirty up the image, incidentally, dials back the lavishness of it all a little. I’d be keen to see it again to make sure, but I think it just falls short of the director’s very best work; I prefer the films in which the pleasures are more immediate, and obvious. (****½)