Greek film director Yorgos Lanthimos is unique for many reasons, chiefly his ability to innovate storytelling within modern cinema. Black comedy is his forte, and his films have not been ones to hide behind their rhetoric, thankfully. Just a few years ago, the buzz built around The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and then, a year later, Olivia Colman shined through his lens in The Favourite. Emma Stone, recently awarded Best Actress by the Phoenix Critics Circle, shines in Lanthimos’ current film, the Venice Golden Lion-winner Poor Things.
Based on the novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray and adapted by The Favourite’s Tony McNamara, Poor Things explores the childlike qualities of love from multiple vantage points. Lanthimos is not content to merely frame love within the Victorian walls of a dank, downtrodden London. Poor Things expands its horizons, quite literally.
Bella, played by Stone, is a brilliant character, as her world comes into focus, cared for by Dr. Goodwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) while capturing the attention of his newly-minted assistant, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef). Max is interested in Bella, and you’ll need to see the movie to truly understand their dynamics. He eventually asks Baxter for Bella’s hand in marriage.
Mixing the complexities of a marriage proposal with Bella’s desire to explore her world is one of the critical aspects of McNamara’s script and Lanthimos’ direction as Mark Ruffalo’s philandering Duncan Wedderbum enters the picture, giving Bella a choice, or better stated, an option she hadn’t considered.
McNamara blends Max’s practicality with Duncan’s indulgences. Youssef and Ruffalo play their respective roles with grace and humility, adding context and layers to Stone’s performances. They elevate her performance in an enduring way, inviting you to pay closer attention to Bella as she chooses Duncan. This isn’t to say that Bella chooses lightly, but she realizes she can glean more from her experiences by following Duncan, creating a raft of hilarious consequences for both characters.
Max, who is as obliging to his fiancée as he is to Baxter, handily remains behind after Bella makes the choice. That his character waits for Bella to realize where her heart lies is admirable. With Max, Youssef plays the role of the observer as much as Bella does in her own world, and that’s a strength in McNamara’s script and Lanthimos’ direction. It adds to Lanthimos’ strengths as a storyteller, as unique as Alexander Payne or, even to an extent, Wes Anderson in their unique abilities to craft vibrant stories while creating a world you want to visit; they draw you in with conviction.
In the case of Poor Things, this is why the brothel sequence in Paris and the fine Madame Swiney (Kathryn Hunter) are as outrageously appropriate as they are. Having learned the gift of indulgence and out of necessity, Bella subjects herself to a less-than-desirable situation to move the story forward in a convincingly humorous way.
The performances are Poor Thing‘s strengths, but Lanthimos’ world is incomplete without Robbie Ryan’s eye. The darkness that pervades Victorian London and the era the story is set in require many controlled shots. Dreary Victorian London never looked so hauntingly beautiful as it does here. And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, Jerskin Fendrix’s score, both over the story and within the story (Fendrix has a cameo), is exceptional.
As Bella’s lust for freedom and understanding of love comes full circle, we’ll likely remember Poor Things as we do other works in Lanthimos’ oeuvre. Emma Stone anchors a brilliant supporting cast and continues to radiate in her performances. Poor Things is wickedly funny and, though not for all audiences, is one of the best films of 2023.