Poor Things

Turning in a fearless career-best performance, Emma Stone reteams with 'The Favourite' filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos on a madcap 'Frankenstein'-inspired marvel.
Sarah Ward
Published on December 13, 2023


Striking feats of cinema by Yorgos Lanthimos aren't scarce. Sublime performances by Emma Stone are hardly infrequent. Screen takes on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein have been a constant since the birth of moving pictures. For Lanthimos, see: Dogtooth and Alps in the Greek Weird Wave filmmaker's native language, plus The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Favourite in English. With Stone, examples come in her Best Actress Oscar for La La Land, supporting nominations before and after for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Lanthimos' aforementioned regal satire (which made him a Best Director contender, too), and twin 2024 Golden Globe nods for their latest collaboration Poor Things as well as TV's The Curse. And as for the greatest gothic story there is, not to mention one of the most-influential horror and sci-fi works ever, the evidence spans traditional adaptations, plus debts owed as widely as The Rocky Horror Show and M3GAN (Blade Runner, The Fly, Re-Animator, Weird Science, Edward Scissorhands, Ex Machina, Upgrade, Little Joe and The Creator are also on the lengthy list).

Combining Lanthimos, Stone and Shelley results in a rarity, however: a jewel of a pastel-, jewel- and bodily fluid-toned feminist Frankenstein-esque fairy tale that's a stunning and dazzling creation. As zapped to life with Lanthimos' inimitable flair, a mischievous air and Stone at her most extraordinary, Poor Things isn't just unique despite building on three shining successes — it's a treasure that's as audacious as it is subversive, and as breathtakingly willing to get wild as it is downright brilliant. Emotions, ideas, empowerment, twisting Shelley and Promethean myth into a pointed skewering of the societal expectations placed upon women, a committed ensemble, entrancing touches in every frame, a score that's equally jarring and jaunty, a dreamily macabre vibe, furious fearlessness: this film is alive with them all. That a tale about reviving the dead to grapple with mortality and the yearning to thwart it keeps inspiring new riffs has always been fitting, with each new storyteller undergoing that same process in their way, but this version is a lightning bolt.

With cascading black hair, an inquisitive stare, incessant frankness and jolting physical mannerisms, Poor Things' star becomes Bella Baxter in this suitably weird and wondrous adaptation of Alasdair Grey's award-winning 1992 novel, as penned by Australian screenwriter Tony McNamara (The Great, and another Academy Award-nominee for The Favourite). Among the reasons that the movie and its lead portrayal are so singular: as a character with a woman's body that's been resurrected with a baby's brain, Stone plays someone from infancy to adulthood, all with the astonishingly exact mindset and mannerisms to match. Putting her comedic skills to excellent use but ensuring that Bella is never a joke, she does so while making each move, choice and feeling as organic as birth, living and death. The entire scope of Poor Things' protagonist is the kind of wish that actors mightn't realise they have because it's so remarkable. With Bella all impulses and curiosity at first, then buzzing with sexual desire and devotedly pursuing autonomy — and with a frenetic-but-stiff doll-like gait that's a marvel to watch, plus say-anything speech patterns — Stone turns the opportunity into an exquisite masterclass.

The time and place when Poor Things kicks off: a fantastical steampunk vision of Victorian-era Europe. Although the film begins in colour as a woman ends her own life, Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (also back from The Favourite, and also with an Oscar nod to his name thanks to that flick) swiftly switch to black and white to meet what becomes of the suicidal person's body. It's due to the London-based, scar-faced Scottish doctor Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe, Asteroid City) that Bella exists; even if she didn't call him God, he's been playing it, including with household pets and other animals. His new human creature toddles around, aiding with his unorthodox surgeries and indulging whatever takes her fancy — smashing plates, smacking visitors, and enjoying new discoveries and sensations with literal childlike glee. But regardless of her father figure's intentions or wants, freedom, horniness, the quest for independence and agency, wanting to know more than the protective world he's left her in and a lust for adventure all beckon.

Accordingly, while Godwin tries to marry Bella off to kind and sincere medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef, Ramy), she hatches other plans. With Poor Things joining Call Me By Your Name in its carnal use of fruit, Bella discovers "working on myself to get happiness" and "furious jumping" — that'd be masturbation and fornication, with her debut experience with the latter returning the movie's hues as well — and runs off to the continent with caddish lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law) instead. Lisbon, a cruise that stops in Alexandria and Paris await. So does a survey of all that living can hold for women, both for the feature's reawakened force and viewers. Lanthimos' fascination for tearing into humanity's social constructions and pretences to expose its realities gets electrified again, as does his concurrent obsession with battling such structures and systems by forming insular worlds, and the need to escape that then springs.

Portugal brings hot air balloons, a bewitching all-timer of a dance scene, just some of the flick's acrobatic thrusting, an attempt to enforce civic niceties and Bella steadfastly refusing to be anything but herself. The boat ride introduces books, friendship and the first real female advice that she's received via Martha (Hanna Schygulla, who came to fame half a century back for her work with Rainer Werner Fassbinder). It also sees cynicism and the world's suffering enter her understanding courtesy of Martha's companion Harry (Jerrod Carmichael, On the Count of Three). In France, a lack of cash finds her in the employ of madam Swiney (Kathryn Hunter, Andor) and leaning into socialism with fellow sex worker Toinette (Suzy Bemba, Everything Is Well). And when the past makes a comeback, it's with bullying and misogynistic power dynamics (and with Sanctuary's Christopher Abbott in a key role).

As in The Favourite, the hefty use of fish-eye lenses has it: this lavish, libidinous and happily lewd deadpan delight isn't interested in the same old view of liberation, sex, life's transience and conflicts, defying the accepted order and patriarchal control that everyone has seen before, let alone a regular coming-of-age jaunt or a by-the-book Frankenstein iteration. While it splices together nods to gothic horror nakedly, it isn't routine or a patchwork there, either. As Bella goes on a radical, rebellious, gorgeously rendered, gloriously funny and generously insightful odyssey, Poor Things doesn't sport a standard perspective on anything, in fact. As seen in the efforts of a tour-de-force Stone, her co-stars, Ryan, composer Jerskin Fendrix (a film first-timer), editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis (Lanthimos' go-to since 2005's Kinetta), production designers Shona Heath (another feature debutant) and James Price (The Nest), and costumer Holly Waddington (also The Great), it eschews sticking with the typical everywhere. Richness abounds, then. The only thing that's paltry: even clocking in at 141 madcap and magnificent minutes, that Poor Things doesn't run forever.


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