Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by: Tony McNamara
Starring: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Christopher Abbott, Jerrod Carmichael
Released: December 26, 2023
Grade: B+

Poor Things

Every now and again, I have a spirited debate in the office with a work colleague about Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2015 release, The Lobster.  It’s the tale of a man (Colin Farrell) who must find love in 45 days to else he’ll be turned into the animal of his choosing.  I enjoyed the film for its surprising, messed-up, quirky nature and its dark sense of humour.  My fellow employee hated it for exactly the same reasons.  It highlights that Lanthimos isn’t for everyone and the level of entertainment is dictated by personal comedic tastes.  His other works, including Dogtooth and The Favourite, provide further proof.

Poor Things is another wild journey!  It’s based on the 1992 novel of Scottish author Alasdair Gray which in turn has been adapted by Australian Tony McNamara (The Rage in Placid Lake).  It’s the story of an experimenting scientist (Dafoe) who has taken a baby’s brain and placed in the body of a deceased woman, Bella Baxter (Stone), and brought her back to life.  She can barely communicate at first but, as the brain matures, so too does her vocabulary, actions, and view of the world.  It’s easy to see why comparisons have been made Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Emma Stone has already won an Academy Award for best actress (La La Land) but she’s being talked up as a possible two-time winner for her performance here.  Her appearance doesn’t change but over the course of 141 minutes, her disposition transforms from that of an incoherent child… to that of a cunning, calculating adult.  Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight) is also very good as Duncan Wedderburn, a wealthy lawyer who seduces Bella and triggers her insatiable sexual appetite.  This explains the MA-rating in Australia and tag of “strong themes, sex, coarse language and nudity” – just mentioning in case you’re prudish.

The premise is bananas and so too is the execution.  Lanthimos and his crew have crafted a dystopian version of London which, in blending old and new, has been described by production designer Shona Heath as a science-fiction movie set in the 1890s.  The unsettling music compositions of Jerskin Fendrix adds to the film’s eye-raising vibe, and the deliberate overacting of key cast members (Ruffalo a standout) throws in a wild dash of farce.

A strength of Poor Things are its layers.  Simplistically, you could watch the film as a light-hearted spoof filled with sex and surprising one-liners.  If willing to think more deeply, it can provoke thoughts about gender, control, power, science, fate, and death.  What right did the scientist have in reusing the body of the dead woman?  How should the relationship between Bella and Duncan be perceived?  How much of our kindness is nature versus nurture?

Poor Things is a wee-bit sluggish in places and I think they overdo certain jokes (the sex stuff) but it’s still as memorable and distinctive as Lanthimos’s prior outings.  Not a film you’ll soon forget.