It was about half an hour into Phantom Thread that I realized how much I'd missed seeing Daniel Day-Lewis smile. The reclusive actor has spent so many years playing dark, driven monsters or tormented men of history that even briefly glimpsing his warmer, romantic side felt like a revelation.
That's just one of the ways that Phantom Thread plays on our sense of expectation. Here's another: The last few films from director Paul Thomas Anderson -- who releases movies about as often as Day-Lewis does -- have been strikingly unconventional in their style. At first, Phantom Thread unfolds in smooth, clean, classical fashion. No atonal bursts of music, weird narrative digressions or surreally twisted characters. At least, not at first.
Set in the 1950s, Phantom Thread follows the life of British fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a man quietly, intensely devoted to his work. He draws and patterns, seamstresses actually creates the dresses, and his disciplinarian sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) keeps things moving and drama-free. Cyril also manages the arrival and removal of Reynolds' paramours.
Then into Reynolds's life comes Alma (Vicky Krieps), who serves him at a small cafe while he's driving to his country cottage, and he's immediately smitten. Is she merely the latest in a long line of disposable conquests? Soon it becomes clear that Anderson's seeming conventionality is something of a ruse -- that he's interrupting the gently rolling reserve with jagged moments of emotion, like little rips in the fabric. Phantom Thread is a film of contrasting textures, but it's a counterintuitive one. It presents a soft, even sensuous world, and shows us how sometimes love can come in the cuts and the tears.