Films about fashion don’t usually receive the attention you’d expect of award season blockbusters. Perhaps they’re seen as unimportant – or just too niche. But, a movie about a couturier with three-times Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis in his last lead role? That’s something to shout about.
In June last year, Day-Lewis announced that he was retiring from acting for good, and that Phantom Thread, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, was to be his final roll of the dice. Cue movie industry buzz hitherto unseen for a film about dressmaking; six Oscar nominations and three major awards (one for screenplay and two for costume design, naturally).
‘I didn’t want to get sucked back into another project,’ Day-Lewis said in a recent interview. ‘All my life, I’ve mouthed off about how I should stop acting, and I don’t know why it was different this time, but the impulse to quit took root in me. It was something I had to do.’
Set in London in the 1950s, the film depicts Day-Lewis playing couturier Reynolds Woodcock, who caters to the lavish tastes of high society in post-war London. He becomes obsessed with a young maid called Alma (German actress Vicky Krieps), who he elevates to the status of model and muse for his dressmaking. A tale of male genius, and the troublesome dynamics of a master-muse relationship, Phantom Thread explores romantic power and control in the last days of true couture fashion.
Day-Lewis is famed for his commitment to method acting, and trained as a tailor for two years prior to filming Phantom Thread. In preparation, he watched archival footage of fashion shows from the era, studied the lives of designers and learned to sew. He even made an original Balenciaga gown from scratch using his wife, filmmaker Rebecca Miller, as a fit model.
In other words, his commitment to his profession seems, as ever, to border on the obsessive. Will a man who’s so consumed by his passion for acting be able to give it up? We’re not convinced.
This retirement announcement is not a new one. The actor has taken breaks from acting throughout his career. In 1989 he quit stage acting forever, mid-way through a performance of Hamlet at the National Theatre, as you do. Then, in the late ‘90s, after filming Jim Sheridan’s drama The Boxer, he disappeared for five years to become a shoemaker, working as apprentice to the old Italian master Stefano Bemer. Finally, in 2013 he declared he was leaving the industry for another five years to move to a farm in County Wicklow, Ireland and learn rural skills such as stonemasonry.
It is perhaps natural that a man who immerses himself so deeply in his work should go through periods where he purportedly wants to give it up. For The Boxer, Day-Lewis tattooed his hands and trained as a real fighter, twice a day, seven days a week, for nearly three years. Whichever way you cut it, that sounds hellish.
But, let’s not forget that becoming different characters has been the one constant in Day-Lewis’s life. And, for a creative spirit who clearly relishes escaping into different worlds and psychees, that’s one hard habit to kick. Even Paul Thomas Anderson is doubtful that this is the last we’ll see of his lead actor. As he put it in a recent interview, ‘I’m not really going to let him get away with it.’ Either way, Day-Lewis’s announcement has produced a surprise movie sensation.
Whether he retires or not remains to be seen, but really, the only question to ask yourself is whether you’re prepared to let the chance to see him one last time slip by.