Poor Things begins in a Victorian era setting with a distinctly steampunk twist.
A beautiful young woman of privilege we do not know (Emma Stone) throws herself from a bridge to her death in the dark waters below. Just at that moment, a hideously scarred scientist and physician named Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) prowls the banks of that very river.
Sometime later, the woman is now named Bella Baxter and she wanders Godwin’s mansion surrounded by bizarre animals stitched together. Bella is childlike, completely innocent and is as curious of the world around her as a newborn baby. Godwin tasks a young man named Max (Ramy Youssef) to observe and report on her development. As Max’s feelings for Bella grow, so does her sexuality and her desire to see the world beyond the cage that these men plan to keep her in.
She chooses to run off with Godwin’s lawyer, a slick libertine and cad named Duncan Webberburn (Mark Ruffalo). With this first taste of freedom, Bella begins an adventure of emancipation and sexual liberation. An odyssey across land and sea from London to Paris and many places in between. Soon, she has outgrown the grasp of even Mr Webberburn himself.
As Bella explores the world, she learns more about its beauty and its horrors. Completely free from shame and the burdens of societal pressure, she discovers as much about herself as she does the wonderful world around her.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos has surprised audiences with his highly praised, absurdist filmography. His previous feature, 2018’s The Favourite became a smash hit, nominated for ten Oscars winning Best Lead Actress for star Emma Stone. For his most ambitious film yet, Lanthimos reunites with Stone and his writer, Australian Tony McNamara, to adapt Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel Poor Things.
The incredible success of The Favourite has allowed Lanthimos to fully break from his independent film origins. Poor Things is a darkly comedic mind bending fantasy epic, the likes of which many visionary filmmakers never get the chance to create. It is first and foremost a story about a woman breaking free of the shackles of society and the men around her that want to use to constrain her.
With obvious narrative parallels to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Poor Things is equally whimsical, sexy and horrific. This bizarre fairytale we see Bella embark on is unlike anything else we’ve seen in cinema for a long time and feels like a successful cross of direction between the comedy of Wes Anderson and the dark adult themes of Guillermo del Toro films. However, Poor Things is never too heavy handed and there is much humour to be found throughout at the absurdity of the film’s world and its characters.
McNamara deserves yet another Oscar nomination here for his exceptionally witty script. Puns, turns of phrases and his delicious dialogue seem almost Shakespearean in their creativity. Over the top characters feel right at home with this fantastical world as a backdrop. Bella’s story in particular is enhanced by the way her character is written and performed.
Emma Stone is evidently adequately comfortable working with Lanthimos. Also serving as co-producer, this allows her to give an amazingly brave performance, shocking in many ways as we see her grow from little more than an overgrown baby to a powerful, sexually liberated and confident woman. With every new scene, we see Bella grasp that little bit more of what it means to be human.
Almost as fascinating to watch as Bella’s personal ascension to womanhood, is the downfall of her lover Duncan. Ruffalo plays the debauched playboy hedonist with such vigour, you can’t help but smile as he makes your skin crawl. At once, the villain stealing Bella away quickly realises she’s too much for him to handle and the transition is priceless.
The costume design by Holly Waddington is gorgeous across the board but it can especially be seen through Bella as her wardrobe cleverly changes throughout the film to match her growing maturity. Matching with Poor Things’ stylish script and eccentric world are its technical aspects. When Bella finally escapes her cage and enters the world, the film transitions from black and white to a vibrant explosion of colour. Production design by Shona Heath and James Price presents us with a canvas where often each frame looks like a work of art by Vincent Van Gogh.
The last dark fantasy film I felt myself falling in love with as much as this one would be 1995’s The City of Lost Children. Poor Things is a stunning film from start to finish. Although the final act may overstay its welcome, the bonkers world which Lanthimos has created is a true joy to soak in.
With great performances and an above all fearless outing from actor and producer Emma Stone, Poor Things is an electrifying and fantastical exhilarating film, deserving of a view from the dedicated cinephile.