Poor Things is widely regarded as such a masterful piece of literature not only because of its unconventional storytelling methods and the interjection of unusual illustrations but also due to its rich characters. Originally published by Alasdair Gray in 1992, to be adapted in all of its glory would require the right creative team. Enter Yorgos Lanthimos, a filmmaker who has swiftly made his stamp on cinema within the last decade with beloved gems like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Now, Lanthimos returns to the big screen for the first time since his subversive and acclaimed 2018 feature The Favourite, which was co-written by screenwriter Tony McNamara, who opted to translate Poor Things for the screen independently.
Set in the 19th century, Poor Things follows Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a young woman whose inanimate body was recovered and brought back to life by Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). The story shares obvious similarities with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sure, but these are only surface-level comparisons. Baxter is an unorthodox surgeon whose maimed body was experimented on by his own father in the name of science.
As Bella learns her cognitive and motor skills back with relative haste, Godwin, who is lovingly and aptly nicknamed God by his surrogate daughter, recruits one of his more keen students Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) to keep a watchful eye and make detailed notes on her progress. However, when Godwin unsuspectingly leads lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) into Bella’s life, he entices her to run away and see the world by his side, leaving her home and the only people she has ever known for the first time.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things excels in finding a faultless middle ground between staying loyal to the source material and making adjustments to the plot as well as character dynamics in order to form a cohesive film adaptation. One of the most significant changes is that Bella is present from the very first frame of the movie whereas in the novel, many years pass within Godwin and Max’s friendship before Bella is even introduced. As a result, we are gifted with Bella’s enthralling presence for nearly every minute of the highly justified two-hour and twenty-one runtime.
It is relentlessly clear that this adaptation is a byproduct of adoration for the novel. Subtle references like incorporating the book’s original cover art into the blocking of a final scene and a similar illustration style being used within the opening title card are just a few examples of this type of homage. It is a very rare feat to make every frame of a film feel warranted and crucial, yet the impeccable synergy between Yorgos Lanthimos’ direction and Tony McNamara’s script makes for an utterly enticing experience from start to finish.
Lanthimos channels his unwaveringly eccentric vision into every single fiber that makes Poor Things the stunning feat that it is. He reunites with previous collaborators in several departments that contribute to creating yet another one-of-a-kind visual experience. From cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s dynamic camera work and unconventional lens use to the gorgeous match cuts via editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis that transport the audience between scenes, it’s incredibly hard to ever look away from the screen. Furthermore, a seamless combination of detailed bespoke production design with VFX transforms the architecture of iconic cities like Paris, Lisbon, and Alexandria into fantastical reimaginations. Accompanied with a debut film score that is as remarkable as it is peculiarly, fashioned by ultra-modern pop artist Jerskin Fendrix, every visible and audible creative decision melds into a whimsical voyage.
As Bella Baxter, Emma Stone (who is also one of the film’s producers) is enchanting, conjuring a new career-best performance that smoothly blends her outstanding comedic and dramatic abilities. Her ability to navigate through the fruition of Bella’s womanhood is a sight to behold. From the outset, she is able to display child-like innocence through the subtlest of eye movements before diving head first into her evolving maturity and sexuality with precise physicality and speech. It is practically impossible to envision anyone else being able to play this role with the alluring nuance that Stone possesses.
Ramy Youssef captures the kind and eager spirit of Max McCandles in his feature film debut while Willem Dafoe nails his endearing paternal demeanour as Godwin Baxter. Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Abbott, Margaret Qualley, and Kathryn Hunter each get their individual moments to shine in supporting roles as well. Nevertheless, it is Mark Ruffalo who manages to deliver one of his most unforgettable performances to date as Duncan Wedderburn. As a man whose characteristics are firmly built upon the foundations of the patriarchy, he gets more than he bargained for from Bella’s unyielding spirit as she challenges the prejudices of her times. Ruffalo holds nothing back, playing the character with a hilariously memorable high-brow accent and level of camp that is necessary for a project of this caliber.
Though often abstract, this fierce tale of a woman who is physically constructed by the patriarchy but determined to forge her own path and affirm her autonomy translates gorgeously both to the screen and the modern day. Filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos is given the perfect material to operate at his finest levels of artistic expression. As a result, Poor Things is a wildly entertaining quest for liberation and a true cinematic tour de force that wears its technicolor heart on its sleeve.