The title’s suggestion of kindness and pity is deceptive – in reality, this incredibly strange epic is filled with ruthless vivisection. Poor Things is a Victorian horror story with a steampunk-retrofuturist twist, adapted by screenwriter Tony McNamara from Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel and brought to life by the absurdly talented Yorgos Lanthimos. Lanthimos takes us into a bizarre, artificial world, captured in part through black and white filming and distorted perspectives, while other scenes are bathed in vibrant colors reminiscent of hand-colored engravings.
The star actress in his film is someone who elevates her career to a higher level, even beyond that. This person is Emma Stone, who delivers a brilliant and funny portrayal of Bella Baxter, a sexually naive and primitive woman who is being secretly experimented on by her charismatic and troubled guardian, Dr. Godwin Baxter (whom she calls “God”). Willem Dafoe plays the role of Dr. Baxter. Bella’s focused stare and prominent brow take in everything around her as she tries to make sense of the strange new world that Dr. Baxter has created.
Bella, a youthful lady, made an effort to end her life by jumping off London’s Tower Bridge. Baxter bravely retrieves her body in secret from the muddy bank of the Thames and, resembling a combination of Victor Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s novel and Henry Higgins from Shaw’s play, revives her using mysterious methods that are only disclosed at the conclusion of the tale.
Bella is a fascinating character, both childlike and mature in her physical appearance. As she explores the act of masturbation, her language abilities are enhanced, surpassing her previous use of simple English. She is under the care and instruction of Dr Baxter, aided by his housekeeper Mrs Prim (played brilliantly by Vicky Pepperdine) and his enthusiastic research assistant Max McCandles (portrayed by Ramy Youssef), who becomes enamored with Bella. Dr Baxter allows Max to ask for Bella’s hand in marriage with the stipulation that they all reside together in his elaborate townhouse.
However, trouble arises when the lawyer who comes with the papers to make this agreement official is a deceitful and unscrupulous man. He charms Bella and persuades her to go on a lavish trip around Europe filled with sensual pleasures and excitement. Dr. Baxter reluctantly accepts that he has no other option but to allow Bella to leave with this villainous man. This mischievous character is named Duncan Wedderburn and Mark Ruffalo delivers a hilariously entertaining performance, completely altering his appearance with a moustache and, in one scene, a straw hat.
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Bella and the infamous Wedderburn travel to Lisbon and Alexandria, where she is enchanted by a haunting fado tune and takes it upon herself to use Duncan’s casino winnings to help those in poverty. In Paris, they reach their lowest point and Bella realizes that sex work is necessary to make ends meet. She becomes a Victorian explorer, adventurer, and discovers her own sexuality, much like the characters in Steven Marcus’s “The Other Victorians” or Ronald Pearsall’s “The Worm in the Bud.” It is remarkable that by the end, she is entirely convincing as a romantic figure and self-taught individual who, unlike Frankenstein’s monster, aspires to study medicine.
This movie is brought to us by a highly skilled team, featuring cinematographer Robbie Ryan and production designers James Price and Shona Heath. The unusual and captivating musical score by Jerskin Fendrix adds to the overall strangeness of the film. Every aspect of it – from the frames and images to the jokes and performances – elicits a sense of exhilaration.