Venice Film Festival highlights: critical acciaim for Poor Things and Ferrari

The 2023 Venice Film Festival is underway, and in spite of the ongoing actor's strike, the Hollywood glitterati has descended on the city's atmospheric alleyways and canals.

La Biennale, as it's officially known, builds to the reveal of the top prize, the coveted Golden Lion, which will be awarded on September 9th. Until then, here are selected highlights of movies that have played to a rapt audience.


Poor Things is hailed as a modern masterpiece

Singular Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos doesn't truck in convention. His 2019 period drama The Favourite was awash with scabrous black comedy and skewed fish eye lenses to give a uniquely dyspeptic view of the court of Queen Anne.

The movie yielded multiple Oscar wins, and Lanthimos has now reunited with one of the stars of The Favourite, Emma Stone, for his latest oddball outing, Poor Things.

Adapted from Alasdair Gray's 1992 novel, Poor Things occupies a visually ravishing, off-kilter universe that many have compared with the works of Terry Gilliam. But aside from the sets, costumes and ornate designs, critics have agreed it's Stone's remarkable central performance that holds the attention.

She plays Bella Baxter, a Frankenstein-style hybrid of a child's brain in an adult's body. As Bella grows up, overseen by her creator and 'father', Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), her impulses start to become synchronised and she desires to see more of the world.

Critics say what then ensues is visually splendrous, raunchy and jaw-dropping as Bella increasingly comes to terms with her own sexuality. When she shacks up with a caddish lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), things only become funnier and more provocative.

Stone's command of physical movement and nuance has yielded unanimous praise. The film currently stands at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes from 33 reviews, an impressive start for an idiosyncratic venture that's being earmarked as an Oscars frontrunner.

"Poor Things is unquestionably the performance of Stone's career," writes Maureen Lee Lenker for Entertainment Weekly, "her wide eyes employed to perfection in Bella's own wonder at the world.

"Holly Waddington's costumes — a Vivienne Westwood-esque blending of Victorian, punk, and mod styling — aid in her transformation. Stone is a gifted comedic actress and she is an ideal match for Lanthimos' tone, a strange mix of black comedy, farce, and social commentary.

"For all its hilarity, explicit sex — which, for the record, is a) extremely sexy, b) earned, and c) hysterically funny — and foul-mouthed dialogue, Poor Things is a romance about a woman learning to fall in love with herself, no matter what others think she should be.

"For that reason alone, Bella is a cinematic heroine for the ages and Poor Things is a unique piece of artistry. With Yorgos Lanthimos behind the camera, it's not hard to find it fascinating to be alive."

Poor Things is released in the UK on January 12th, 2024.

Ferrari yields acclaim for Adam Driver

Director Michael Mann doesn't do things by halves. His meticulous attention to realism helped distinguish, among others, 1995's classic crime thriller Heat, whose central bank heist and shootout sequence prompted Britain's SAS to investigate and adopt the tactics of said shootout.

Mann's formidable back catalogue also includes the likes of Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, The Insider and Collateral, all of which balance philosophy with burly performances and frequent, shattering action set-pieces.

It's natural that Mann's journey has led him to the story of infamous car designer Enzo Ferrari in the forthcoming Ferrari biopic, which similarly balances brawny, full-throttle race sequences and long stretches of character introspection.

Mann's film captures the title character at his lowest ebb after the death of his son, Dino, and the imminent collapse of his automotive empire. When Ferrari is offered the chance to showcase his vehicles in Italy's 1000-mile-long Mille Miglia race, he sees it as a shot at redemption for both himself and his wife Laura (Penelope Cruz).

When said car designer is played by the versatile and committed Adam Driver, you know the movie means business. Indeed, Driver's intense performance as the ailing, ageing automotive giant has been singled out as the engine that keeps the movie running. 

Variety's Owen Gleiberman describes the movie as "heady, intricately dark" and "raptly absorbing". He continues: "Adam Driver, in carefully slicked-back gray-white hair, wearing a scowl of Machiavellian cunning, plays Ferrari as a tightly controlled force of nature, someone who knows that he has perfected a hurtling machine of great power, but can he steer it to victory? For it turns out that everything in Ferrari’s world is imploding.

"The dramatic grandeur of “Ferrari” is that is doesn’t make racing, or life, look any easier than it is. The movie is about winning, but it’s also about the price you have to pay."

Ferrari is released on December 26th.


Saltburn is a stylish second feature from director Emerald Fennell

Anything featuring Barry Keoghan is worth checking out. The talented young Irish actor stole the show in last year's The Banshees of Inisherin, for which he was Oscar-nominated. Now, he takes the lead role in the visually extravagant drama Saltburn.

This is the second movie from writer-director Emerald Fennell who scored a significant artistic success with Promising Young Woman. The movie put gender politics and intentionally uncomfortable conversations surrounding consent under the microscope, eliciting a strong performance from Carey Mulligan, plus an Oscar win, in the process.

Mulligan makes a brief cameo in Saltburn, which centers around Keoghan's socially ostracised Oxford Uni student Oliver. He soon becomes obsessed with his aristocratic peer Felix (played by Euphoria's Jacob Elordi) and is soon invited to the latter's country pile Saltburn.

What then unfolds has shades of Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse by way of The Talented Mr. Ripley. It's all lensed in hazy, dreamy hues by cinematographer Linus Sandgren. scored to a soundtrack of mid-2000s hits (the movie is set in 2006) and with a supporting cast including Rosamund Pike and Richard E Grant.

Even so, it's Keoghan's arresting inscrutability that's drawing the most praise. Writes Fionnuala Halligan in Screen International: "Key to the film’s success is Keoghan’s elasticity: his face and eyes can shift with a shadow, and it is impossible to conceive of any other young actor having the dangerous edge to pull it all off."

Saltburn is scheduled for release on November 24th.


Priscilla puts an intriguing spin on the legacy of Elvis and Priscilla Presley

Indie film stalwart Sofia Coppola (Virgin Suicides; Lost in Translation) follows hot on the heels of last year's Elvis biopic. However, her movie, Priscilla, doesn't focus on The King (played here by Saltburn's Jacob Elordi) but instead on his betrothed, Priscilla Presley (Cailee Spaeny).

The film is adapted from Presley's 1985 memoir Elvis and Me co-written with Sandra Harmon. It's an empathetic look at the time when Priscilla was whisked away to Elvis' Graceland estate and became intoxicated by the allure of fame, all the while as she threatened to become subsumed by her husband's super-star status.

Critics have praised Coppola's sensitive and intuitive direction and also the performances, Spaeny's in particular. Hannah Strong writes in Little White Lies: "Relative newcomer Cailee Spaeny – recommended to the filmmaker by Kirsten Dunst – is a great choice for Priscilla, possessing a grace and interiority that defines Coppola’s characters.

"As a storyteller, she has never dealt in dramatic monologues or grand gestures and Spaeny seems to innately understand this, capturing both the dizzy headstrong optimism of Priscilla’s teenage years and the heartbreak and doubt that set in in the years following the birth of their daughter Lisa-Marie."

Priscilla opens on January 1st, 2024.

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