How the Unlikely Claustrophobia of ‘Phantom Thread’ and ‘The Favourite’ Moves the Needle on Prestige Period Dramas

In the midst of the scandals and snubs that have dominated the conversations surrounding Best Picture nominees of recent years, Phantom Thread and The Favourite are two contenders that have drawn the most specific comparisons. Given that they’re both British period pieces at their cores, and are helmed by prominent directors — Paul Thomas Anderson and Yorgos Lanthimos, respectively — these films seem just as primed for predictable Academy recognition as star-studded melodramas or Sam Rockwell playing racist characters a little too well.

But even as The Favourite and Phantom Thread have received well-deserved buzz and tick many of the boxes that often lead awards cycle domination, the general consensus remains: there’s something offbeat and singular about how these stories unfold. In spite of their lavish settings, the films seize upon social codes of the time to exacerbate conflicts between their characters, until the resulting atmospheres become increasingly confined and oppressive. This intentional, rather ironic claustrophobia helps the films to plumb deeper themes that arise from certain historical circumstances, moving the needle on what a “period piece” can explore.

By the time that Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) first encounters his lover and muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps) near the beginning of Phantom Thread, viewers have already been thoroughly exposed to the painstakingly choreographed rituals that dictate the designer’s opulent life. The film marks Paul Thomas Anderson’s first departure from the restless Americana of his seven earlier features, as he and the notoriously method-oriented Day-Lewis delved into the refined world of 1950s London couture houses.

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Much more reliant on tradition than Paris — the other European dressmaking capital of the time — London fashion was predicated on the occasions of the city’s upper class. Scenes of royals and women of high society ascending the spiral staircase of the “House of Woodcock” to meet with Reynolds as Jonny Greenwood’s score swells carry an air of choreographed theatrics because they are meant to — these carefully manicured businesses are beautiful, but so steeped in privilege and British customs that they can easily turn suffocating if one steps out of line.

While he might create his designs in a rather isolated manner, Reynolds Woodcock’s psyche is very much informed by this sub-culture. He, too, is deeply superstitious that any alterations of his established creative processes will prove disastrous — something as simple as the scrape of a knife can render him childishly distracted for the rest of the day.

Women come and go from the house as lovers and muses, but once they no longer fuel the designer’s creativity, they’re briskly escorted out by his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), leaving only ghosts of themselves behind in the work that they inspired. The most constant specter in Reynolds’s life is his late mother, whose idealized presence hangs over him and the work that she taught him to create as a boy. With so many unseen presences also clamoring for influence onscreen, Phantom Thread becomes a prime candidate for a gothic romance when Alma enters the House of Woodcock.

As an outspoken, working-class Eastern-European immigrant, Alma’s mere presence bristles against the strict codes that heavily regulate London couture and Reynolds’ own ability to function. And yet, she is the one who has control of the long game, telling the couple’s story through a fire-lit framework narrative to the young Dr. Harding over the course of the film.

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Eventually, the strange, intimate connection that Reynolds and Alma form from their first meeting blisters to the point where the claustrophobic chamber drama between them prompts her to turn the tables. She might fit the archetype of a young gothic heroine who becomes involved with a chillingly distant man, but when Alma poisons Reynolds in an effort to bring him down from his heightened stagnancy, Phantom Thread subverts the genre to the point of no return.

When he experiences what he supposes to be a brush with death, Reynolds and Alma marry and supposedly cast aside these skeletons in the closet. But the oppressive atmosphere remains after this brief epiphany, persisting until they are soon at odds again. This distance isn’t resolved until Alma serves Reynolds another poisonous omelette, this time letting him in on her plan — in order to meet in the middle, they have to cast aside their personal ticks and power struggles, as Reynolds does when he readily accepts Alma’s omelette, effectively allowing her into his life. In examining the claustrophobia that this time period and its male lead’s own gothic psyche have on Reynolds and Alma’s relationship, Phantom Thread is able to move past the surface-level clichés of British period stuffiness and toxic creative men. Instead, when all of this is stripped away, the film’s meditation on the ever-shifting compromises of relationships is twisted, but all the more poignant.

While Phantom Thread takes its time delving beneath the lavish surface of 1950s London, The Favourite is unabashed in its bawdy portrayal of 18th-century court life. Although England toils away in a longstanding war with France at the time, the story is almost entirely limited to Queen Anne’s palace — where hallway duck races and pelting naked men with fruit are just as common as backhanded alliances and parliamentary squabbles. The queen herself struggles with nasty bouts of gout, and would much rather be tending to her seventeen pet rabbits — one for each of the children she lost — than ruling a country. Lanthimos’ film only leans into this historical peculiarity by consistently oscillating between tight close-ups and fisheye wide shots as the action unfolds.

This camerawork is also crucial in illustrating the shifting power and entrapment of its three female leads: the petulant, ailing Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her unofficial regent and longtime confidant, Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Sarah’s disenfranchised, wily younger cousin Abigail (Emma Stone).

Over the course of The Favourite, it is these women’s power plays — whether political, personal or sexual — that are responsible for shifting the course of not only their lives, but the lives of an entire country, as well. They might speak of the distant war and taxes on the common people while leisurely shooting game or swatting off the bewigged men of Parliament, but in switching from closeups of the films’ main trio to the ends of the large palace chambers, one is keenly aware of how few people in this society actually come within such a large fraction of national power. As Abigail attempts to usurp Sarah from the queen’s political conscience and bed in order to regain her position in high society, she’s also disrupting the practiced balance of court life and politics that Sarah dutifully tread to keep England’s governorship in line.

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Meanwhile, Anne’s infantile outbursts and lack of attention towards the country that she’s meant to be running (as she lets it slip to Sarah in the film’s opening moments, she’s not even aware that England is still at war) have real consequences, as she regularly allows herself to be cajoled into rash decisions that will affect an entire country. Unlike many royal period dramas, which only draw on how power and corruption affect male characters, this skewed perspective also allows Anne, Abigail and Sarah to be delightfully morally gray without being reduced to tropes or historical footnotes.

In these warped moments, it’s also easy to see how the same walls that give the women of The Favourite their chances at power and finery also keep them confined by 18th-century customs. Even as the narrative grants them much more nuance and craftiness than their preening male counterparts, Sarah and Abigail’s ability to stay in the palace is dependent on their husbands’ and fathers’ statuses. In spite of her power, the facetious flattery and royal expectations of the court leave Queen Anne constantly off-kilter and isolated from authentic affection — save Sarah, who is arguably the freest when Anne spitefully banishes her from England at the end of the film.

There are many moments in the film where it feels inopportune to laugh as each protagonist’s story rapidly shifts from puckish comedy, to cutthroat plotting, to the raw vulnerability that women feel in the face of a male-dominated society. By the time that Abigail successfully gains Sarah’s power and influence over the queen, she’s lost the morals that she clung to, and Anne has lost perhaps the only person who ever loved her.

As the last shot superimposes the women’s faces over one another, and the queen’s rabbits burrow over them in a trippy fade to black, it feels vindictive enough that these characters are able to be reflective and influenced by the limits of their circumstances, but also imperfect and disastrously human all on their own. And hopefully, in taking a page from Phantom Thread and The Favourite‘s books, more period films will be unafraid to delve into their stifling, strange settings to challenge audiences’ perceptions of how these stories can resonate with 21st century themes — give or take an omelette or two.

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