Poor Things review: Emma Stone excels in freaky fable with a feminist twist
Somehow both tender and vengeful, it’s a rich story that blossoms in its closing chapter.
Unveiled at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Emma Stone stars in Poor Things, a freaky Victorian-era fable with a feminist twist on the mad scientist trope. For fans of 2017’s The Favourite, it’s a particular delight, with Stone, who co-starred in that, reuniting with director Yorgos Lanthimos and writer Tony McNamara. While that was dominated by Olivia Colman’s crazed Oscar-winning turn as Queen Anne, here Stone takes centre stage as Bella, a young woman in the care of Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Defoe), a Scottish scientist with scars across his face as if he’s been stitched together by Dr. Frankenstein himself.
Bella walks in a jerky fashion, while her language skills are basic, like a child learning her first sentences. She smashes glassware and screams banshee-like. Her parents, Baxter explains, were explorers who died in South America, although the truth is rather more disturbing. He has re-animated her using a child’s brain after she was found moments after committing suicide, jumping from a bridge into the terrifying waters below. Already, bizarre experiments waddle across his lab, including a "chicken dog" – a cross between the two animals. Bella might be his greatest creation yet.
Godwin recruits one of his students, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), to observe her. Before long, she’s imploring them to take her into the outside world. Gradually, she and McCandles grow close, with Baxter encouraging their union, as long as they live under his roof. But when a legal document is drawn up, Bella takes off with the sleazy solicitor, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who encourages her to join him on a trip to Lisbon. Her lack of social decorum, in polite society, raises more than a few smiles. "I must go and punch that baby," she yells, in the midst of a tearoom, infuriated by a crying infant.
While she’s already learnt how to pleasure herself, Wedderburn repeatedly beds her, allowing her to discover the pleasures of "furious jumping", as she terms between-the-sheets action, speaking in that inimitable style of hers. As Wedderburn’s jealousy grows, he resolves to kidnap her, taking her on a cruise – a trick that backfires spectacularly, as Bella becomes wise to him. The more she discovers about the world, the more she becomes her own woman, learning more about her body and brain.
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Shot chiefly in black-and-white, Lanthimos and his team create delicious a fairytale feel, thanks to the idiosyncratic costumes and production design. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, frequently shooting the characters using a distorting fish-eye lens, adds to the Poor Things’ woozy, disorienting feel. There are moments when it almost feels like you’re spying on these oddball characters, looking through a keyhole at this hermetically-sealed world. Even the grating music, by Jerskin Fendrix, swells this curious atmosphere.
The plaudits will rightly go to Stone for a remarkable performance that has both physical and emotional demands, although her male co-stars each bring something magical. In Ruffalo’s case, it’s heartening to see Marvel’s Hulk star as a swine whose vulnerabilities will be exposed. Youssef, the stand-up comic best known for Ramy, shows confidence in the handling of the language by McNamara, who slyly adapts Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel. Dafoe, meanwhile, adds another fabulously curious character to his collection.
While the film could do with some trimming – at 141 minutes, it feels overstretched, the European jaunt especially – Lanthimos does pull it round for the final London-set act. Somehow both tender and vengeful, it’s a rich story that blossoms in this closing chapter, as Bella gains greater agency in the patriarchal universe. Eccentric and uncanny, it once again shows Lanthimos as the master purveyor of the strange and surreal.
Poor Things is due for release in UK cinemas on 12th January, 2024.
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