Review: Poor Things

Emma Stone in POOR THINGS. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.
Emma Stone in POOR THINGS. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

Screen reviews by Christopher Gist

It seemed prophetic. Some very neat graffiti written around the flush-button of the cinema toilet read “Nothing is Real”. Perhaps the author/philosopher had just seen the phantasmagoria, Poor Things. Poor Things is an other-worldly Frankenstein-style odyssey set in a colourful, comic, and morbid Victoriana full of suspended trolley cars and surgically modified organisms. This fanciful world inverts Mary Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein’s monster: rather than exciting the rage of the villagers, Emma Stone’s appealing “monster”, Bella Baxter, excites the sexual and intellectual interest of whomever she meets. Written by Australia’s Tony McNamara (adapted from Alasdair Gray’s novel), with Mark Ruffalo and Willem Defoe starring alongside Stone, this lushly designed film showcases Stone’s memorable acting talents, and has been widely praised.

But it is clearly not to everyone’s taste: a couple in our screening walked out when it was revealed how Bella had been surgically reconstructed by using the brain of her own unborn child following her suicidal drowning.

For the majority who stayed, the film follows Bella’s evolution, exploring the “innocent abroad” trope familiar from works such as Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby, and Ricky Gervais’s/Karl Pilkington’s An Idiot Abroad. The comic reference here is not wholly inapt: there are some laugh-out-loud moments in Poor Things, often drawn from Bella’s unworldliness, or from the miseries levelled against Defoe’s character, Dr Godwin Baxter, the genius-slash-mad-doctor who reanimated Bella. There’s even a hint of Mike Myers’s Doctor Evil as Godwin comically lists the childhood cruelties visited upon him by his own medico father in the name of research, including crushed thumbs and genital branding. The physical humour extends to some incredibly funny dancing as Ruffalo tries to match the entertainingly incoordinated Bella on a night out.

This is a beautifully shot film, and the sort of movie that feels poised to be included on the curricula of film schools for its love of cinema and cinematic devices. The director Yorgos Lanthimos shot on 35 mil rather than digital, shooting black-and-white in parts, using fish-eye, peep-holes, portholes, LED screen backgrounds, and a range of post-production visual treatments that demonstrate how much thought has been given to the imagery. Lanthimos says he built all of the sets – a boat, a brothel, Bella’s house, the “exteriors” – so that the team could control the lighting, design, and feel on the soundstage in a way that reflected Bella’s perspective. The use of fisheye was a technique Lanthimos developed with cinematographer Robbie Ryan on The Favourite – and I recall wondering in the cinema at the time why he chose those particular frames in The Favourite. Lanthimos explains the use in Poor Things as endeavouring to evoke a feeling of claustrophobia or awkwardness when in peephole or, when full-frame, an increased expansiveness.

Here, Lanthimos has his eye on particular audience emotions, and this film will be as thought-provoking to screenwriting students as directing students. An interesting question for those fascinated by screenwriting is how the film concerns itself with examining ideas alongside how it utilises emotion. What emotions are McNamara and Lanthimos targeting to glue us to the characters? How does the story take us by the hand and lead us around this new, non-mimetic world, often so removed from our own? We see a lot of Bella’s body as her mind develops, often in contexts where men are brutish or unappealing or foolish, and where the jeopardy turns on the degree of personal agency Bella has in each situation. Of course, we want the best for Bella – she has had a tough history, and has been pulled from suicidal misery into a world of exploitative medical science: before Bella escapes into the world, we see her confined in a house full of surgically modified animals whose benign monstrosity nonetheless signals a sociopathy masquerading as medical science. Godwin at work. But beyond Bella’s vulnerability and growing comprehension of socio-politics, how the invitation to emotional connection works becomes an interesting question. The answer amongst audiences will vary, but this is a film to both be looked at and to be considered, with its clear themes of control of women, sexuality and shame, wealth and poverty, and of rule-making generally.