Daniel Day-Lewis delivers an astonishing performance in this twisting, twisted cinematic creation. He plays Reynolds Woodcock, a high-end fashion designer in 1950s London. Reynolds is temperamental and domineering—he has exacting standards for everyone and everything around him. His attention to his craft has taken precedence over all.
Cyril, his sister, is the only person in his orbit who really matters to him. He has left a trail of young women who have stayed with him for a time, but none of them draws any lasting emotional connection from him. As she prepares to send his latest muse away, Cyril suggests that Reynolds visit their country home.
Enter Alma, a waitress at the restaurant where he goes for breakfast his first morning out of town. He orders an enormous breakfast, and Alma teases him, calling him “hungry boy.” Young, blushing, but willing to follow his lead, Alma seems destined to become his latest accoutrement. But there is something different about her. Cyril senses it at their first meeting, Reynolds is slower to pick up on her independent streak. Alma will not bow to Reynolds’ every wish or demand. The three—brother, sister, and lover—become entangled in an uneasy battle for control. And Alma taps into the hunger of his soul.
Reynolds learned his sewing craft from his mother, a woman who still holds a strange power over him though she’s been dead for some time. He feels he’s cursed, perhaps because of her loss. His sister, in some ways, serves as their mother’s surrogate. She keeps him on schedule and arranges things the way he likes. She cleans up his messes—the women he toys with—and does everything she can to minimize his temperamental outbursts, working through them the way a mother might seek to calm a toddler.
Alma (hint: the name is derived from the Latin word almus, which means “kind” or “nourishing”) wants more than his tolerance. She wants him to depend on her, so she comes up with a way to make him “slow down.” To say more would give away too much of the film, but let’s just say her methods are unconventional.
Each frame of this film is impeccable, as are the dresses that Reynolds and his team create. No words are wasted, each look is pointed. Director Paul Thomas Anderson helps all of the actors mine their parts for every possible nuance.
The tension is riveting, but as fascinating as Reynolds and Cyril may be, I just couldn’t conjure any real care or concern for them. There is no sense of serving a greater good other than the next sumptuous gown. His art has become the end goal; no person or idea matters more than the gown. In fact, some people are not considered worthy of his work.
Alma becomes less sympathetic as we discover what she is capable of. As perfectly concocted as this movie may be, it still left me hungry for something more. There is no sense of hope, and barely a sense of humanity. I am not alone, it seems. Daniel Day-Lewis has announced his retirement from acting as a result of a “sense of sadness” that settled over him while making this movie. Watching it helped me understand why. (Focus)
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