Film review: Phantom Thread (2017)

This is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad film. I cannot be clearer than that. Anyone who loved this widely praised film that garnered six Academy Award nominations (including for best picture, best actor, best director, and best supporting actress) be warned: you are going to hate this review. My instincts told me not to watch this film. I knew that it dealt with the world of high fashion, something I know little about and care even less. I knew that it was set in the world of the British aristocracy, a group that I despise as pretentious parasites. So why did I overrule my instincts and watch it? It was because Daniel Day-Lewis has acted in some good films and had said that he was retiring and I wanted to see what film he had chosen as his swan song. Also Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 91% rating and Metacritic gave it 90% so I figured that there must be something in it worth seeing.

I was wrong. After I watched almost half of the film in which nothing happens except boy meets girl, I was ready to call it quits and go and read a book but the sunk cost fallacy kicked in and I decided to watch a few more minutes hoping that my investment of time was not entirely wasted. And Something Did Happen! At last, I thought, things are picking up. But it turned out to be a false alarm and that plotline went nowhere. Similarly there were a couple of other subplots that suggested something interesting might happen but they too simply disappeared.

So what does happen in this film? Staring. Lots of staring. Or no doubt as the screenplay might have described it: Meaningful Exchange of Looks. Scene after scene consists of the two main characters staring at each other and when they speak it is to say the most banal things. If there were an Academy Award for staring, this film would easily win it. In fact, early on we are given a warning about this when, after a bout of staring, Vicky Krieps actually tells Day-Lewis that if they have a staring contest, she would win. The the rest of the film looked like just such a contest.

Here is the trailer, where they seem to have put in all the scenes where the actors showed any animation at all, with all the scenes where they silently butter their toast at breakfast omitted.

The only thing that captured my interest was the performance of Lesley Manville as Day-Lewis’s business manager, housekeeper, and confidante. Her steely performance reminded me of the infamous Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, except that Manville’s character was not evil. It was only when she was on the screen that this film became tolerable. The scenes involving just Day-Lewis and Krieps, which make up most of the film, were excruciatingly boring unless you are heavily into staring.

I am well aware that those who loved this film will say that I am a hopeless Philistine who lacks an appreciation of High Art. I plead guilty. When I see a film, I expect at a minimum an interesting story and characters that I become interested in and care about. I did not find it here.

I became curious as to why this film was rated so highly. Maybe there are features that low-brow viewers like me missed. But one can postulate other reasons. Americans tend to be overly impressed, infatuated even, with upper class British period pieces, with all its formal dressing up and luxurious settings and elegant parties with people speaking with posh accents. Look at how they go completely bananas when there is a wedding or a baby born to someone in the British royal family. I find that to be quite strange.

Eddie Izzard in his own inimitable style captures the kind of British film that seems to attract US audiences and compares it to US treatments. (Language advisory)


  1. mnb0 says

    “the world of the British aristocracy, a group that I despise as pretentious parasites.”
    But you like PG Wodehouse?!

    “So what does happen in this film? Staring. Lots of staring.”
    Ah, nobody will ever beat Sergio Leone in this respect.

    Of course there is staring and staring.

  2. Mano Singham says


    I’m not sure what your point is. PG Wodehouse’s books were one of the major sources of my awareness of the British upper classes as pretentious hypocrites. Much of his humor is based on it.

  3. blf says

    A trick I use is to watch the trailer with no sound. It’s a movie, which is largely a visual medium, so the sound is — oversimplifying — a distraction, a filler.† So I did that with the trailer in the OP (I do not recall of ever hearing of this film before). That was a fecking boring trailer, with, well, “lots of staring”.

      † The trick isn’t reliable. And subtitled films (often even in languages you can’t read) challenge the trick.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    …also, the dog-shaped demon in, wossname, that crappy horror films with antichrist growing up, was capable of serious hypnotic staring.
    For better hypnotic staring in better films, I would recommend the “Doctor Mabuse” films by Fritz Lang.

  5. birgerjohansson says

    Gort, the extra-terrestrial robot (The Day the Earth Stood Still) was staring at people with a death ray. That was a staring with plenty of action!
    Next up: Alien xenomorphs who stare people to death!

  6. Holms says

    I am convinced that these eventless emotionless plotless characterless movies are heavily lauded primarily because people feel that they are expected to appreciate the vapourous (==> nonexistant) nuances, and not because they particularly liked it. If they didn’t, they would instantly reveal themselves to be a ruffian with pedestrian tastes in they eyes of their fellow snobs. Imagine they scorn they would recieve if they revealed that they were bored…!

    And so they join each other in the tedium of watching movies that they secretly dread. Each one keeping up the facade with rapturous praise, while maintaining a watchful eye on their fellows in case one of them should show signs of being a normal person barbarian

  7. bmiller says

    Sergio Leone is a genius, though. Plus, there might be staring, but there is always Morricone music going on in the background. finally, I would rather watch El Indio and The Man With No Name and Lee Van Cleef than any posh brits

    I agree with you about the odd infatuation with British aristocracy. .

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