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‘Poor Things’ review — how to get ahead in lucidness

‘Poor Things’ review — how to get ahead in lucidness
Emma Stone in 'Poor Things'. (Photo: Atsushi Nishijima / Searchlight Pictures)

The Favourite filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos is back with leading lady Emma Stone for ‘Poor Things’, a genre-spanning, emotionally uplifting delight. As it continues to rack up awards, ‘Poor Things’ sets a high standard for the year at the movies.

It can be said with confidence that Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t make typical movies, so you should always pay attention when a new one of his comes out. This time, Lanthimos has teamed up with his The Favourite collaborator Emma Stone to create Poor Things, a film that leaves viewers with a smile on their faces.

Based on the novel by Alasdair Gray, with a screenplay by Tony McNamara, Poor Things tells the story of Bella Baxter (played by Stone), a young woman seemingly brought to life in the late 19th century by eccentric scientist and fatherly figure Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Monitored by Godwin and his assistant Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), Bella starts out with infant-like intelligence but quickly develops mentally. During the process, she is swept off her feet by sleazy lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) with promises of seeing the world beyond Godwin’s oversight. Absconding from her home with Wedderburn despite McCandles’s protests, Bella is propelled to faraway lands on an adventure of discovery, both of herself and the world’s many machinations, be they beautiful or cruel.

Although unconventional, Poor Things is a “feel-good” movie – one the most feel-good movies to come out in recent memory. Not only that, it is Lanthimos’s most accessible creation to date. Whereas his previous work, such as The Favourite and The Lobster, contained a lot of subtext, Poor Things is much more linear and straightforward. It’s not concerned with challenging its audience, or insisting that they think, which is admittedly a risk.

Ramy Youssef and Willem Dafoe in ‘Poor Things’. (Photo: Yorgos Lanthimos / Searchlight Pictures)

Poor Things

Emma Stone in ‘Poor Things’. (Photo: Yorgos Lanthimos / Searchlight Pictures)

Do not fear, however. What Poor Things lacks in message, it makes up for in emotional raunchiness. Bella is a compelling character who subverts traditional fish-out-of-water narratives with a positive and unique attitude. McManara’s screenplay adds to that by going above and beyond what could have been a simple Frankenstein adaptation. Bella’s interactions with the people around her, especially the men, and how they treat her, propels a satisfying story of self-fulfilment.

On that note, sexual content is depicted throughout the film. Numerous scenes of a sexual nature are spliced together with flashes of a sliced brain or diced corpse. It’s an idiosyncratic approach that complements a visually spectacular production. The monotone greys associated with the Victorian era are replaced by oversaturated colours – typically to signify the expansion of Bella’s worldview. There’s also a dash of steampunk aesthetic thrown in and the atmosphere is playful yet eyebrow-raising, reinforced by Jerskin Fendrix’s musical score, which is best described as chiptunes, as if they were made using vintage, cog-driven instruments. 

Lanthimos also uses his trademark variety of angles and lenses, particularly a fisheye lens, to imply the audience is peeking into a forbidden space. Such camerawork may not be to everyone’s taste, but it doesn’t matter when the subject matter seen through the lens is interesting and absurd.

Image: Searchlight Pictures

Willem Dafoe in ‘Poor Things’. (Photo: Atsushi Nishijima / Searchlight Pictures)

That absurdity, ironically, grounds the performances of the entire cast. Stone is a shoo-in for all the awards as she portrays a woman with the mind of a child – but a mind that is also interpreting the world around her without any concept of the etiquette that governs it. She is free of all social obligations and she relishes it. Even towards the end, when the 142-minute film starts to feel a tad too long, we’re still cheering Bella on. Poor Things is Stone’s movie from beginning to end.

Not far behind the Oscar-winning actress is Ruffalo, who appears to be enjoying his time away from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and his role as Bruce Banner. Ruffalo ditches his easygoing attitude in favour of a misplaced accent, sporadic fits of melancholy and a mutating desire for Bella that makes him downright hilarious. Dafoe brings up the rear of the ensemble. With Bella referring to Godwin as “God”, we have further evidence that Dafoe’s acting skills may very well be divine power. Jerrod Carmichael also deserves a shout-out for his character Harry, and Harry’s utter contempt for the entire human race.

Poor Things could’ve been a lot of things but it turns out to be something far removed from, and beyond, expectation. As one character remarks that Bella is “plotting her course to freedom”, so too is Lanthimos plotting a course through several genres. In the process, he’s made a damn good movie. DM

‘Poor Things’. Image: Searchlight Pictures

Poor Things will be available to buy or rent digitally at Apple TV, Prime Video and other platforms from 27 February 2024. It will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on March 12.

This story was first published on PFangirl.com.

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