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.

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