The Plot: The eccentric Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) experiments with the lifeless body of a pregnant woman who has jumped off a bridge. Naturally, he brings her back to life by transplanting the brain of the unborn child into the mother’s cranium. And so begins the reanimated life of one Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a womanchild who learns about the world one step and one day at a time. The simple pleasures of chocolate eclairs, dancing like there was no tomorrow and what she calls ‘furious jumping’ courtesy of caddish ‘visiting man’ Duncan (Mark Ruffalo) who takes a fancy to her. However, Bella will not be constrained by the many men around her…
The Verdict: Yorgos Lanthimos is nothing if not consistent. The Greek Weird Wave director first came to prominence in arthouse circles with the loopy-beyond-belief Dogtooth. It got people talking though and in time he then branched out to English-language features like The Lobster courtesy of his partnership with Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe, the Dublin-based producers behind Element Pictures. That fruitful partnership has now given birth to a fabulous monstrosity with Poor Things, the latest offering from Lanthimos which has quite rightfully been sweeping up awards including the newly-minted Golden Globe winner Emma Stone. The consistency of weirdness and out-there eccentricity is present and correct throughout, but in a more accessible way that was sometimes lacking in his previous features.
Put simply, Poor Things is what happens when Lanthimos sticks the wacky humour of Young Frankenstein, the sauciness of Re-Animator and Belle de Jour, a globe-trotting period piece and a feminist tract into a blender, pours it into a script and then moulds it into his own unique, attractively-packaged shape. This is then shot through with his customary visual style and a knowing sense of humour about the characters and their offbeat situations. It’s based on the novel by Alasdair Gray, who Lanthimos first approached about an adaptation in 2009. He then mentioned it to Stone five years ago, so they’ve been working on it together for some time. It comes across as the ideal creative fusion between director and actor, both pressing fearlessly forward with tricky subject matter and presenting it without inhibition… but also with a sense of winking innocence that is hard to resist.
Stone hit the proverbial nail on the head when she described Bella’s journey as a womanchild who doesn’t fall in love with a person, but with life itself. That’s very much the ethos of the film, a celebration of Bella’s journey of self-discovery as she moves from sort-of child to sort-of woman in the kind of character arc that pushes her range as an actor. It’s a naked performance in every sense of the word, unshowy and simply engaging from the get-go as she uses her body as a prop for Bella to learn about. This is contrasted with the men in the story, most of whom want something from Bella in one way or another but offer little meaningful in return. There’s sparkling interplay between Stone and Mark Ruffalo, the latter putting on a pantomime English accent but which works a treat for his overconfident foppish fool. Bella stands above them all, a now wordly woman smarter than anyone gives her credit for.
If there’s one misstep here, it’s in a late third act plot development which doesn’t add much to the story and extends the running time unnecessarily beyond the 2-hour mark. It does at least result in the film’s best gag in the closing scene though. After a 4-month delay due to Hollywood strife, great things were expected from this film and Lanthimos doesn’t disappoint – it is great indeed. It mixes disparate elements, electrifying performances and a steampunk aesthetic into a mad but wildly imaginative concoction to be liberally consumed. It’s easily his most purely enjoyable film to date.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Poor Things (Ireland / UK / USA / 18 / 141 mins)
In short: Great things
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.
Starring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Christopher Abbott.