Early in Phantom Thread — a.k.a. the greatest love story of our time — fastidious 1950s designer Reynolds Woodcock tells the story of how he made his first dress. As he tells his newest muse (the luminous waitress Alma, played by Vicky Krieps), when he was a young boy, he tried to make a wedding dress for his mother’s second wedding. He soon realized he would never finish in time working alone, but he couldn’t find a seamstress willing to help: they were all unmarried and, according to superstition, if an unmarried woman helps make a wedding dress, she’ll never wed. (Is this a superstition? Sure.) The only woman who would help him was his older sister Cyril. For her efforts, she was rewarded with eternal single status, naturally.
Ah, Cyril. She’s Reynolds’s therapist, mother-figure, caretaker, yin to his totally in a codependent yang. Cyril, played by Lesley Manville who’s withering gaze could turn any man to dust, is responsible for more or less running his life. She manages the House of Woodcock: dealing with the books, hiring the staff; firing the staff; placating the adoring, insecure women who suffer Woodcock’s difficult temperament in order to wear one of his elaborate creations. She also keeps his personal life running at the necessary efficient, methodical clip so that he may continue to be a genius — mostly by managing his love life. This project involves disposing of his girlfriends when they start buttering their toast too loudly or wanting too much attention, as well as appearing at intimate moments like dinner, or when girlfriends are dressed only in their slips (the ultimate Woodcockblock).
At first blush it might seem that Cyril, with her tight bun and tighter pragmatism is just a century or so removed from being a Miss Havisham figure, a miserable unmarried woman who’s sacrificed her life for one man — a spinster deserving of our sympathy. Kate Bolick may have made an effort to reclaim “spinster” in 2015, but Cyril takes the word and ethers it with one slight purse of her lips. Cyril is no woeful old maid; she’s a no-bullshit business woman who quietly works her power (and quietly knows when to yield it), all with admirable efficiency. She’s a damn hero.
Admire those withering one liners and death stares — her delivery is as dry as the toast that lesser women get kicked out for eating. She can eviscerate with a well-timed silence or a mere gaze. But that’s nothing compared to what she can do to an ego with a few calmly uttered words that turn savage on her lips, words like “he likes a little belly.” (Alma is the only real match for her, which is why it’s satisfying when the two butt heads and even more satisfying when they join forces.) Cyril’s superpower is her ability to make a man who thinks he’s all-powerful into a puppet, without his realizing it.
Because Reynolds Woodcock is such a fussy, particular man, it seems at first that it’s his whims and needs and moods that determine how the house runs, who stays and who goes. But no: it’s Cyril who controls him, enables him, silences him, and puts him in his place. In one argument, Reynolds — frazzled and ranting — demands that his Alma be removed. Cyril (who, at this juncture, is Team Alma) replies,“Don’t pick a fight with me, you won’t come out alive.” She says this while calmly sipping tea from a delicate china cup. And with the look in her eyes, Reynolds knows, and we know, that he can stomp and rant and demand silent breakfasts but that Cyril is the real power, even if he is the “artist.”
I called up Manville to ask her take on the character: Does Cyril have a secret Italian lover she sneaks off with night after passionate night? Is she the most powerful Woodcock in the House of Woodcock? Or, should we ultimately feel sorry for her?
Manville, who suggested Cyril have her own spinoff film (strong agree), said neither. “I don’t think she’s the victim of anything,” she told me. “I think she’s absolutely living the life as she wants to live it. I mean, we could judge it, but I think she’s not married out of nobody is good enough for Cyril. I think Cyril will probably live happily ever after by herself.”