Paul Thomas Anderson has built a career on his endless fascination with dysfunctional anthropoid relationships and characters with a masochistic tendency for extreme self-examination or flagellation.
Just a brief glance at his filmography is evidence for this: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s awkward, sexually repressed boom operator Scotty in Boogie Nights, the messed up multi-faceted bunch of unravelling familial ties in Magnolia, the Scientology-esque oppressive cult of The Master and Punch-Drunk-Love’s tortuous fairytale romance. And now he’s back again, hopping across the pond for this tailor-made gothic romance set in the late 1950s, post-war London.Daniel Day-Lewis (in what the actor has said to be his final performance) plays Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer with obsessive tendencies. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) facilitates her petulant brother’s every whim as he pines for his long dead mother. He’s misogynistic, arrogant and bolstered by his perceived creative genius, he covets young women in the constant pursuit of his latest muse. When Woodcock meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young serving maid, audiences would be forgiven for thinking this were another apropos cinematic exploration of female abuse and exploitation in the hands of powerful men, because, how topical.
However, as always, Anderson is far more concerned with distorting the narrative and observing the results. Despite appearances, Alma is far less placid than first impressions let on and Woodcock becomes enamoured with her (“I feel as if I’ve been looking for you for a very long time”), much to the surprise of his sister.
As a farewell performance, Day-Lewis’ Woodcock is predatory and ghoulish but it’s Krieps’ Alma, that truly dominates the screen. A relatively unknown actress, she holds her own on screen and carries much more of the films emotional meaning than Day-Lewis does. As Alma, Krieps weaves a tapestry of transformation as her character arc unfolds and is often the catalyst for some suitably dark humour in the interplay between Alma and Woodstock.
At the core of the film is Jonny Greenwood’s beautifully elegant score (if you’re unfamiliar with Greenwood, his excellent score for Tran Ahn Hung’s Norwegian Wood is equally as haunting and well worth a listen) which has earned a long awaited Oscar nomination. Greenwood’s trademark orchestral melodies combined with the simple, graceful piano themes interweave through the fabric of the film creating a luxurious viewing experience. Credit must also be given to the set and costume designers for creating an aesthetic that is utterly absorbing.
Anderson is on form as the film comes to a crashing end in a bizarre twist that sees the movie come full circle. Once again Anderson holds a microscope to the dysfunctional and the absurd, though perhaps in a much more stylised and controlled manner compared to his previous works.
Kudos should also be given for Anderson having a hand in the film’s cinematography, a collaborative effort between Anderson and his crew. As for Lewis, whether this will indeed be his final performance we are yet to see, but if so it’s worthy final call that will serve as a fitting reminder of just what an acting titan Daniel Day-Lewis really was.