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  • Benjamin May

Poor Things (2023) Review

Bella Baxter is a woman with the mind of a child- literally. The product of a Frankensteinesque experiment by eccentric surgeon Godwin Baxter, Bella has spent all her life locked in his mansion, surrounded by his other creations. After Godwin hires medical student Max McCandles to be his assistant, Bella begins to develop, her intelligence increasing rapidly. Craving autonomy and wanting to see the world, Bella decides to travel with Godwin’s slick lawyer Duncan Wedderburn, although life outside the mansion proves to be strange and harsh; and Duncan’s charm only skin deep.

A stylish, off-beat comedy, Yorgos Lanthimos’s ‘Poor Things’ is a witty, original and compelling tale told with verve and panache. Based on the novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray, the film- a fresh approach to the Frankenstein story- is full of Lanthimos’s trademark satirical black humour. Examining the nature of identity and exposing the dark, hypocritical heart of Victorian society, Tony McNamara’s screenplay works on multiple levels, and his dialogue is consistently hilarious.

Culturally relevant, the picture offers a surreal portrait of a woman trying to escape a patriarchal system, embarking on a journey of self-discovery. Bella’s awakening- both psychologically and sexually- is a fascinating, funny exploration of agency, desire and identity, as she encounters people and scenarios that challenge her worldview and sense of self. Never pretentious or overly intellectual, the movie is packed with interesting ideas and dark comedy, both gripping and entertaining.

Much like ‘The Lobster’ or ‘The Favourite’, the movie has a striking visual style, although differs from Lanthimos’s previous efforts, which relied on naturalistic settings and minimalistic cinematography.  The world he has created is bizarre and evocative, harkening back to the Golden Age of Hollywood through the implementation of sound stages and painted backgrounds. At times, cinematographer Robbie Ryan employs a 16mm, fisheye lens, which distorts perspectives, fostering a sense of disorientation and wonder. He creates a dreamlike atmosphere, while his subtle utilisation of zooms and tracking shots intensifies the astounding artificiality of proceedings.

Shona Heath and James Price’s production design is intricate and artistic, compounding the absurd inventiveness of the narrative. Furthermore, Zsuzsa Mihalek’s set decoration is highly detailed, adding layers of texture and personality to locations. From the eclectic collection of stuffed animals in Godwin’s home, to the lavish, decadent costumes and props, Heath, Price and Mihalek’s work creates a rich, immersive visual experience. Their work also contributes to the themes at play, creating contrast between the natural and the artificial; the humorous and tragic, which Holly Waddington’s striking costume design only compounds.

The first film where Lanthimos has utilised an original score, Jerskin Fendrix’s music complements the narrative perfectly. Unique and reminiscent of the work of Dutch composer Ernst Reijseger, Fendrix’s eerie, emotionally charged melodies make Bella’s journey all the more affecting, heightening the humour and drama therein. In addition, Yorgos Mavropsaridis’s smooth editing gives the film a consistent pace, adding to its suspense and momentum.

Emma Stone stars as Bella, opposite Willem Dafoe as Godwin, Mark Ruffalo as Duncan and Ramy Youssef as Max. Arguably, Stone has never delivered a performance so intense and nuanced. She displays Bella’s evolution astutely, totally disappearing inside the character. Handling the physicality of the role masterfully, she is never anything other than believable. One can imagine lesser actresses hamming it up as Bella: Stone delivers a tour-de-force performance, both captivating and compelling.

As the seedy, pathetic Duncan, Ruffalo does marvellous work. He is hilariously over-the-top, sharing a great chemistry with Stone. Their scenes together- particularly after they board a cruise ship- are hilarious, thanks to their great working relationship- and McNamara’s excellent dialogue. Dafoe is, as always, terrific. He imbues Godwin with a subtle blend of madness, genius and compassion, making the audience both sympathize with, and question, his motives. Youssef also does commendable work as Max, bringing an understated calmness and sincerity to the role.

A wildly entertaining black comedy, Yorgos Lanthimos’s ‘Poor Things’ fires on all cylinders. Boasting a strong screenplay from Tony McNamara that deals with themes- such as patriarchy and identity- with verve and style, great, witty dialogue and a stirring score, it impresses on every level. Visually stunning, and featuring a commanding, compelling performance from Emma Stone- as well as impressive work from the likes of Willem Dafoe and Mark Ruffalo- ‘Poor Things’ is rich entertainment.


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