‘Poor Things’ is a Wondrous Fable About our Weird, Wonderful World (Review)

by | Dec 15, 2023


A woman from high society gets a second chance at life through unconventional means in the newest film from Yorgos Lanthimos.

Since Dogtooth’s nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 2010, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has went on to become one of today’s most intriguing directors with a combination of deadpan humor and dark surrealism with his English language features The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Favourite. Lanthimos emerges into the post-pandemic Hollywood landscape with his most grand film to date in Poor Things, and the results amount to an astounding achievement through his succulent methods of bringing a fantastical vision of Europe to life, along with a stellar lead performance from Emma Stone. 

Based on the novel of the same name from Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, Poor Things follows Bella Baxter (Stone), a woman who in a previous life attempted suicide only to be rescued and resurrected by mad scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), who replaces her brain with that of the infant she was carrying inside her. From there, Godwin raises Bella like his own daughter, and his parentage develops Bella’s intellect at a rapid pace only for snooty lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) to sweep her off her feet through dubious means away from Godwin’s intended suitor for Bella, assistant Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef).

Bella is so entranced by the pleasures of being with Duncan that she accompanies him on a cruise ship around the world. This experience and encounters with other eccentrics like the cynic aristocrat Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael) and brothel owner Madame Swiney (Kathryn Hunter) open Bella’s big eyes to the wonderful beauty of the world and develop her own independence and empathy for others over the course of her maturation, much to Duncan’s chagrin and the attention of others from Bella’s previous life. 

As aforementioned, Poor Things is Lanthimos’ most epic film to date thematically as well as stylistically, and his visual approach to adapting Gray’s novel is sumptuous on every level. The first act, which takes place primarily within the walls of Godwin’s castle, emulates the monochrome style of classic Universal monster films and is heightened by extreme contrast in addition to the use of a fish eye lens and iris transitions as if to put us in Bella’s infantile yet curious perspective of the world at this first stage of her rebirth. 

However, when Bella and Duncan are off traveling the world, the landscapes of hyper-artificial Victorian-era Europe are almost Daliesque in their vibrancy with beautifully saturated colors and outlandish art direction. Meanwhile, the distorted notes of Jerskin Fendrix’s musical score aurally evoke Godwin’s melancholy and the twisted nature of his experiments in scenes by his lonesome while replicating Bella’s youthful energy and the wondrous beauty of the world around her remarkably without a key change. 

Poor Things also has one of the funniest scripts of the year for the myriad of situations in which Bella and Duncan find themselves as they infiltrate high society together, whether it’s the former’s deadpan explanation for spitting food out of her mouth at a lavish dinner party, or a post-coitus moment to which Bella refers as “furious jumping” where she asks Duncan, “Why don’t people do this all the time?” Ruffalo also displays impeccable comedic timing in his supporting role to make the patheticism of Duncan’s prudishness and self-absorption hilarious by wearing it on his sleeve, such as one instance where the two are separated and he yearns to find Bella by pithily screaming at the top of his lungs. 

The real standout of Poor Things’ ensemble, though, is Emma Stone, and the young actress is poised for awards recognition for what is her most demanding, but career-best performance. Even when Bella’s progression feels too fast in the script, Stone makes it believable with her physicality, dancing to the cruise’s chamber music with a noticeable but nonhindering stumble that otherwise disappears by the time she’s fully realized her independence. Bella is never not endearing either through her line delivery and perfect timing, regardless if she speaks in broken grunts during mental infancy or complete sentences upon adulthood.

The film does run long and it’s worth debating whether Poor Things ultimately should keep the full extent of Bella’s life before her suicide attempt ambiguous rather than center the climax around its reveal as the film chooses to do. That said, it does end Lanthimos’ latest on a  but satisfying note that will have audiences talking about it long after the film’s conclusion, and provides perfect closure for its ensemble. 

Lanthimos and writer Tony McNamara lend a substantial amount of humanity toward all the wild characters in this film adaptation that makes them more than just macabre stock Frankenstein-esque caricatures; to fully delve into why Godwin is the surgeon he is and what triggers Bella into a compassionate figure before our eyes risks delving into spoiler territory. Just know they are but two of the many poor things in this world yearning for better care and better lives, and Poor Things tells their tale beautifully as a demented defense of the downtrodden, a cinematic celebration of persons unconventional, and one of the year’s best films. 

RATING: ★★★★1/2

(out of five stars)