2023 was a year littered with cinematic gems. The “Barbenheimer” craze dominated this last summer, while other, lower-profile releases like May-December, Past Lives, and The Zone of Interest may not have rocked the box office but have gained appreciation from critics and are currently accruing Oscar buzz. Amongst all the films of the last year, however, Poor Things, a fantastical dramedy directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and starring Emma Stone, stands out as unique for its scope, its creativity, and the surprising abundance of heart at the center of its story.
The film starts as medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) becomes the apprentice of a reclusive surgeon and mad scientist named Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), who often goes by the nickname “God.” Godwin’s house is brilliantly realized within the film, an expansive manor filled with an assortment of strange and wonderful oddities, including the movie’s eventual main character: a bizarre and uninhibited young woman named Bella (Emma Stone) who Godwin has resurrected from the dead and taken up as his surrogate daughter. The rest of the story follows Bella as she leaves her adopted father’s abode and explores the world alongside morally questionable lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo).
Adapted from a novel by Scottish writer Alisdair Gray, Poor Things is a tour-de-force in realizing a vivid world through set and costume design. The world itself takes a late-Victorian aesthetic and filters it through layers of pop art, contemporary fashion, and modernist architecture. Lisbon becomes a beautiful representation of everything new to Bella in the world as she sneaks out from Duncan’s hotel room and romps about the city’s streets. Later locales come off almost expressionistic, especially the city of Alexandria, where Bella has a horrific realization about the social conditions of the society she lives in. Bella’s costumes, too, are beautifully designed, composed of gaudy materials and bright colors to reflect her exuberance and excitement at everything new she comes across. The world of Poor Things is a fanciful and gorgeous one, a place to get lost in and which will make the real world outside of the theater seem gray and drab by comparison.
Lanthimos works alongside director of photography Robbie Ryan, who also provided cinematography for the director’s previous film, The Favourite (2018), to also produce a very unique photographic style. Making prominent use of wide-angle lenses, deep focus, and stylistic color-grading, Lanthimos and Ryan portray reality as Bella sees it: disorienting, enticing, alternately wonderful and frightening. The first section of the film, before Bella sets out into the world alongside Duncan, is shot in sepia tones, bringing to mind art house films like Tarkovsky’s Stalker but also such classic Hollywood escapist fare as The Wizard of Oz. This aspect of the film in particular has an immediate and obvious effect, saturating Bella’s world with color as soon as she leaves the stable but constraining confines of Godwin’s manor, but Ryan’s cinematography is beautiful and bold throughout the entirety of the film, coming off at times as almost Wellesian with its deep staging and creative camera angles.
Ultimately, however, the most essential aspect of the film is its narrative. Although it has been advertised with an emphasis on its brash and unashamed depictions of Bella’s sexuality, Poor Things is a bildungsroman covering all aspects of the main character’s maturation. A fair portion of the film admittedly follow’s Bella’s sexual awakening, her eyebrow-raising experiences with the rather predatory Duncan and later portrayals of sex work which will be sure to raise discussion, Lanthimos and the film’s writer, Tony McNamara, also go deep into her immersion in the spheres of friendship, love, literature, politics, and philosophy, transforming Bella from a simple Frankenstein-archetype into a fascinating and memorable character who takes after her surrogate father Godwin while still blazing her own trail and following her heart. Emma Stone is revelatory in this role; it’ll be a shame if she doesn’t walk away with an Oscar. The stages of Bella’s development vary wildly, from barely articulate to refined and intellectual, but Stone makes each one feel utterly natural and believable, all steps in the process of coming-of-age. DaFoe, Youssef, and Ruffalo are also quite good, although perhaps not standout, if only because their screen time is limited compared to Stone’s.
The only time that Poor Things falters is during its last half-hour. Lanthimos and McNamara deploy a fake-out ending and continue to drag on the plot in an attempt to deconstruct their own story. Admittedly, the ‘ending’ first presented wouldn’t have been wholly satisfactory, but something about this section feels disjointed compared to the smoothly flowing first two hours of the film. The actual ending, too, feels slightly hollow, a little too cleanly tied-up for such a morally and emotionally complex picture. These are really quibbles, though. What matters most is the constant and overwhelming sense of humanity that Poor Things radiates. Here we have what is, to this reviewer, the greatest sort of ‘feel-good’ movie: not some sappy, sentimental thing which doesn’t dare to touch tough issues, but a movie which doesn’t shy away from every uncomfortable or troubling thought, confronts these spots of darkness, and still comes away with the conclusion that goodness can be found in humanity and there is such a thing as living life well, even if there is no singular way to do it.
Poor Things is currently playing in theaters. It has been nominated for eleven awards at the 96th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Lanthimos), Best Actress (Stone), and Best Supporting Actor (Ruffalo).
Sophomore Gavin Myer is a Contributing Writer. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.