Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 14th, 2023
Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
Based on the eponymous 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ newest film, Poor Things, is filled with big ideas and spectacular production design. Throw in some fully committed performances from Emma Stone (Cruella), Mark Ruffalo (The Adam Project), Willem Dafoe (Gonzo Girl), and Ramy Youssef (Hulu’s Ramy series), and we have an embarrassment of riches for the mind and eyes. If not all parts coalesce into a fully successful whole, the cinematic recipe is still a delectable feast worthy of careful consumption.
Dafoe plays Dr. Godwin Baxter who, with his white lab coat and a face apparently either sewn together from disparate pieces or merely ruined by the remains of a stitched repair job, looks like a combination of both Dr. Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster. A celebrated teaching surgeon of Victorian England, he is looking for an assistant from among his pupils. Young Max McCandles (Yousef) volunteers, unaware of what lies in store behind the walls of Baxter’s mansion.
Therein is a mystery, embodied by one Bella Baxter (Stone), who bears her guardian’s name but is otherwise unrelated. She calls him “God,” though it’s only one of a few coherent words she can utter. She is, as it turns out, a fast learner. And despite appearing to initially have the mind of a toddler in the body of an adult, she quickly evolves into something disturbingly hard to fathom.
McCandles soon becomes obsessed, even if Bella’s burgeoning and explicit sexuality simultaneously attracts and repels him. She also has a rapidly growing will, which rebels at the decisions being made on her behalf. When God and McCandles plan her wedding, she instead chooses to decamp with a randy lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Ruffalo), on a journey of self-discovery. We eventually discover the truth about her origins, but that’s less interesting than the reality of who she becomes.
For this is a staunchly feminist work, following Bella’s development from waif to matriarch. In a world where men decide a woman’s fate, she learns how to claw back agency, eventually becoming her own person, free of dominance. It’s a powerful resolution.
Stone is fearless and Ruffalo a comic delight, their scenes together livening up the entire middle section of the film. Lanthimos (The Favourite) wraps the entire movie in a bow of stunning visual wonders, none of it lifelike but all of it beautiful. The heightened artifice of the backgrounds makes the narrative feel like a parable. As with many a biblical tale, expect lots of sex. None of it feels exploitative, however, as it all fits into the odyssey of Bella’s coming of age.
As perfect as much of the construction feels—and construction, whether of God’s face or Bella’s very being, is at the heart of the story—it nevertheless begins to drag in its final act. At 141 minutes, Poor Things could use a trim. Some sequences repeat earlier points, and others are merely filler. Despite these shortcomings, the film mostly still shines, a paean to the imagination and to the joy and pain of creation.