If this is indeed Daniel Day-Lewis’s last film, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie (trailer) turns out to be an odd swan song. Apparently the idea it would be his last came over Day-Lewis in reaction to this character, for reasons he can’t quite explain, but perhaps related to the draining intensity with which he prepares for his roles.
Reynolds Woodcock, the British fashion designer Day-Lewis plays, doesn’t display the physical energy of Hawkeye (in one of my favorite movies of all time, The Last of the Mohicans) or the agonizing choices facing Abraham Lincoln, or the disturbing intensity of knife-throwing Bill “The Butcher” in Gangs of New York. Woodcock’s challenge, a drive for perfection, comes not from circumstances, but eats him from within.
Woodcock is a fastidious, often languid character. Some of the dialog was included in a radio review, and I was struck by how slooowly Day-Lewis spoke and the long pauses between utterances. You’re less aware of that watching him, of course, because even when he’s not speaking, he’s doing a lot. The eyebrow, the little smile, the internal consideration, the piercing glance, the innate elegance. While the acting is wonderful, the character Woodcock is not especially likeable, and Day-Lewis is too honest an actor to try to make him so.
Woodcock runs his domain—domestic and commercial—his way, as a well turned out obsessive. He cannot abide a disturbance at breakfast or his whole day is ruined. When his new lady-love Alma (played by Vicky Krieps) scrapes the burnt bits from her toast (with a microphone hidden in the jam-pot, surely), it’s fingernails-on-the-blackboard for the entire audience.
The Fitzroy Square townhouse where he lives and conducts business is presided over by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who knows exactly how to keep order. Is she a benign presence or an over-protective monster? Even she is thwarted when Alma realizes that, to keep her man, she must bring him low.
The production team had fun—Woodcock’s breakneck driving trips (an uncharacteristic unleashing of spirit), the 1950s ambience, the workshop with its dowdy middle-aged women—seamstresses in real life—producing fabulous garments they could and would never wear. Day-Lewis himself spent many months studying the craft of clothing design, and director Anderson has remarked on the actor’s fine hands, able to do work believably, to sew.
Fashion historian Alistair O’Neill has commented that the rich satin fabrics used remind him of Charles James’s post-war designs. (Luscious show about James at the Metropolitan Museum in 2014.) In its workshop and showroom scenes, the film eerily echoes the PBS mini-series, The Collection, which aired last fall. Couture in the 1950s is an infrequent setting for drama; is it the hive mind that inspires two such resonant efforts in the same few months?
The film has garnered six Academy Award nominations—best picture, actor (Day-Lewis), director, supporting actress (Manville), score, and costume design. If Mark Bridges hadn’t received that last, well-deserved nomination, surely he would have retired.
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences, 70%.