Is There a HEA? A Review of Phantom Thread

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Film: Phantom Thread (2017)

Genre: Historical Drama

Overall Rating: ⅘ Stars

Content Warnings: Cheating, depression, verbal abuse, emotional manipulation, poisoning, alcoholism.

Welcome to “is there a HEA?” an ongoing series where we review movies and TV shows that a streaming platform or an audience had tagged as “romantic.” 

The aim? To see if the show meets romance genre standards with a HFN or HEA ending.

This week: The 2017 historical drama Phantom Thread, which initially made its way onto our radar when Netflix classified it as a “romantic drama” (it’s currently available for streaming on HBO and HBO Max). Let’s dive into the review.

Warning: All reviews in this series will contain generalized spoilers for the ending.

The Phantom Thread Review

Obsession is the other side of passion, and sometimes they are one in the same. That is the main takeaway that I got from Phantom Thread, along with the idea that “passion” can lift you to the highest highs and the lowest lows in all aspects of your life.

Smooth, elegant, and almost dreamlike in its depiction of 1950s London, Phantom Thread follows two imperfect people trapped in a seemingly perfect world: Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned fashion designer, and Alma. She is the waitress and muse who catches Reynold’s eye.

Initially with another mistress at the start of the film, Reynolds comes across as a highly skilled creative who is passionate about his career, yet one who is toxic in his mannerisms. Renolds’ insistence on routine and his desire for greatness make him a relatable figure. His cutting comments towards those who do not follow his routine and his habit of dismissing them for the slightest infractions make him a detestable one as well.

There is a sequence at the beginning of the film where Reynolds, his sister Cyril, and his mistress are sitting down for breakfast. When the mistress offers him a pastry, Reynolds gives her a scathing look, and makes a comment about how he already told her that he doesn’t want that sort of food at the table. When she tries to protest, he tells her that he doesn’t have time for “confrontations.” The mistress is left in tears, and Reynolds is clearly at fault.

Later, Cyril offers to get rid of the mistress because she’s sitting around getting “fat.” This lack of care for his significant others in relation to his work (and his sister’s complicity) will become a running theme throughout the movie. They are especially prescient when Alma, the waitress, is thrown into the mix.

Basically, Reynolds lives for his work: he actually lives at work, in a connected dormitory. His introduction to Alma comes by way of Cyril, who suggests that Reynolds take a trip to the countryside. There, he meets the waitress and is immediately enchanted. Alma is enchanted too. 

Despite their age gap, it’s easy to see why.

Smartly dressed, quick-witted, and charming, Reynolds whisks Alma into a glamorous world where soft pianos are always playing, the food is rich, and everyone is dressed to the nines. It must have seemed like a fairytale, and you can see Alma’s obvious delight when her proverbial prince charming ushers her onto his estate to try on a dress. 

Then Cyril arrives, all business. Reynold’s gets to work, coldly measuring Alma like a mannequin. Alma’s delight falls away when faced with this coldness. She spends the rest of the movie chasing that initial high.

I loved Phantom Thread for its quiet glamor; for the subtle elegance of every shot and how this movie revels in the artistry of making clothes. I was really happy with how it reels in the audience through the allure of haute couture, then shows us the ugly side to it. The dynamic between Reynolds and Alma is charged with tension, and engaging. It is central to the story, and definitely a love story, but is it romantic?

For me, not so much.

Reynold’s passion and his desire for routine is something I can relate to. When I’m working on a creative project, that’s all I can think about and see. Basically, you do not want to be disturbed. 

Unfortunately, Reynolds’ casual cruelty towards others is unwarranted, and his behaviour towards Alma speaks of emotional manipulation. It is especially awful to see how he reels her in with a small token of love, only to cruelly cast her aside, again and again. 

Alma for her own part becomes toxic, too. 

Essentially, Alma cannot abide with anyone coming between her and her lover. The idea that he may find another “muse” sends her into an immediate, vengeful rage. Her willingness to go to any extreme in order to maintain their relationship leads her to trap Reynolds into marriage, a union which I automatically assumed would end poorly. They may have passion, but they are not right for each other.

My deliberations on their compatibility are not at play here, though. This review is about the ending, and whether it followed romance genre guidelines.

So. Did that Phantom Thread ending have a happy conclusion?

Is There a HEA?

Yes.

I know! I was shocked when this film followed romance genre standards, especially with all the warning bells that were pointing in the opposite direction before. While I personally wasn’t a fan of Reynolds and Alma’s dynamic, by the end of the film they had worked through their differences and were both involved in the world of fashion. They seem content.

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