02nd Nov2023

FilmBath Festival: ‘Poor Things’ Review

by James Rodrigues

Stars: Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo, Vicki Pepperdine, Ramy Youssef, Jerrod Carmichael | Written by Tony McNamara | Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Ever since he made a splash with 2009’s Dogtooth, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has been considered an exciting voice in cinema, resulting in accolades and award nominations for his disturbing and absurdist works. That does not change for Poor Things, an adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel which sees Lanthimos and writer Tony McNamara on fire once more after their previous collaboration with 2018’s The Favourite.

After committing suicide, Bella (Emma Stone) is resurrected by the scarred and unorthodox scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) – who Bella refers to as God. Initially naïve, Bella’s eagerness to learn more about the outside world clashes with Godwin’s desire to keep her safe. Bella rebels by running away with slick lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), as their continent-spanning journey leads her on an adventure of liberation, understanding, and sexual freedom within the constraints of late-Victorian society.

What is crafted resembles a baffling science experiment that Godwin would have created, splicing together DNA of My Fair Lady, Frankenstein, some touches of The Island of Dr Moreau, and a setting drowning in prudish sensibilities. Counteracting the latter is gruesome imagery and masterful wordplay that brings alive the astounding quantity of sex jokes, for a work that would make polite society faint. This could have easily been a mess in the wrong hands, but the result is one of 2023’s most engrossing and hilarious works.

As the initial scenes see Bella longing to venture outside, her dreary outlook at being confined indoors is matched by the black-and-white look of the film. Once she ventures outside into the wide world to discover a life so freeing and sexually adventurous, the surroundings are injected with colour that bursts alive in ways resembling a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film.

Key to it all is a phenomenal Stone, perfectly portraying the resurrected woman who grows to better understand humanity through her experiences. She disagrees with accepted injustices which reveal the world’s horrors and selfishness, while advocating for change and discovering newfound pleasures in a less downbeat journey which resembles Under The Skin. While Bella’s initial naivety and bluntness is marvellously played for comedic effect, it also captures how polite society baffles her. She has no interest in tiptoeing around social niceties, instead being verbally cutting as she seeks liberation to do what she loves instead of what others deem proper.

Providing exceptional support is Dafoe, playing the film’s beating heart as the Victor Frankenstein-style figure affected by his traumatic childhood. Much like the surrogate daughter he cares for, Godwin toys with the natural order of things for his own desires. Helping Godwin to raise Bella is housekeeper Mrs. Prim (Vicki Pepperdine), who has a hilarious moment involving her “hairy business,” and assistant Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), who falls for Bella. Threatening to steal the film is a side-splitting Mark Ruffalo, whose debauched lawyer is drawn to Bella early on when he sees her adolescent state within an adult body. As the woman grows through her experiences and thinks for herself, Duncan’s inflated ego is repeatedly cut down to size and shown to be pathetic in ways that are never less than hilarious.

Between Robbie Ryan’s dazzling cinematography and Jerskin Fendrix’s haunting score, Poor Things is a stunning piece that explores themes of love, science, class, and sexuality in ways that ensure the 141-minute runtime flies by. While the final act can feel like an unnecessary diversion, it is worth taking for where the story resolves. Within an already strong body of work, Lanthimos has created one of his strongest outings which is also one of 2023’s best films.

***** 5/5

Poor Things screened on October 20th, as part of this year’s FilmBath Festival.


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