Few films were better critically received in the 2010s than Paul Thomas Anderson’s 𝘗𝘩𝘢𝘯𝘵𝘰𝘮 𝘛𝘩𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘥. But before I reveal my reservations about this critical darling, (simultaneously surrendering what little authority I have gained over the last couple months) it should be noted that few people anticipated PTA’s 8th feature with as much eagerness as I.
As a general rule, PTA films both warrant and reward second viewings, but I’ve now seen 𝘗𝘩𝘢𝘯𝘵𝘰𝘮 𝘛𝘩𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘥 four times, and after each screening I’ve asked myself the same question: 𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘐’𝘮 𝘮𝘪𝘴𝘴𝘪𝘯𝘨?
𝘗𝘩𝘢𝘯𝘵𝘰𝘮 𝘛𝘩𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘥 is the story of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a persnickety, high-end 1950s London dressmaker, who discovers his new muse in a country BnB: a fumbling, swan-necked waitress named Alma. Woodcock is difficult in every regard and we learn from an earlier interaction that he has a history of disposing of his muses with indiscreet indifference. But when the flame of Alma’s inspiration begins to flicker, unlike her predecessors, she assumes responsibility for her own fate, and in turn, the fate of their twisted romance.
I will end the summarising there, as from here the plot seems to develop entirely in a subtextual realm, through a series of glances and glares, which is a feat on its own, but speaks volume of the film’s obsession with inaction.
It should be said that the craftsmanship on display here is undeniable. The world of 50s London dressmaking feels fastidiously researched and equally well realised; and the Oscar-winning costume alone should be enough to keep the fashionistas in their seats. But it’s Johnny Greenwood’s (Radiohead) score which is the supreme element, so spot-on that it reveals everything the film intends on being: hauntingly romantic, devilishly acerbic and harrowingly poignant.
The links drawn between Woodcock and Count Dracula inseverable, as everything from the dress, manner and enigma of this ‘certified bachelor’ seems absurdly vampiric; yet while I enjoy the gothic themes, along with the folkloric superstition and fairytale undertones, these are all aspects which feel like nothing more than meaningless hat-tilts which are of little contribution to the story.
Paul Thomas Anderson has a history of pulling off the most unorthodox romances, whether that be Barry and Lena from 𝘗𝘶𝘯𝘤𝘩 𝘋𝘳𝘶𝘯𝘬 𝘓𝘰𝘷𝘦, or Freddie and Lancaster from 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘔𝘢𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘳 (both of which I praise without restraint), but the incompatibility of Reynolds and Alma consistently seems too much of a stretch. It becomes increasingly difficult to believe in the endurance of this relationship: I can’t believe the headstrong Alma resigning herself to a life subservience, regardless of the genius Woodcock possesses.
My primary issue with the film is that once we establish and unpack the twisted nature of this romance- which, granted, feels wholly original- does the film really go beyond being a detailed portrait of a peculiar power dynamic? I don’t think so. It builds upon it by repeating itself.
The end result is a film which leaves too much of its storytelling in the hands of its score, and too cutely avoids any tangible drama.
Gives me no pleasure, but back to the basics please Paul.