The first 15 minutes of Poor Things shocked me more than Saltburn’s entire runtime. For some of you that will be enough to convince you to watch it, for others perhaps the opposite, so let me tell you why Yorgos Lanthimos’ post-modern bildungsroman is absolutely worth seeing.
Based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, Poor Things starts in steampunk-inspired Victorian-era London and spins its formative tale around a stylised Europe of the time. Rather than shooting on-location, Lanthimos has raised these cities ‘out of the ground’- constructing huge soundstages – that allow impossibly surreal buildings and streets to swirl around the characters.
It is through Emma Stone’s acclaimed portrayal of the protagonist, Bella Baxter, that these worlds come to life. She really threw herself into a performance that was either going to ruin the character, or define it, and it is most definitely the latter.
Yeah, so the born-yesterday trope is not new, especially for the Victorian era; certainly, some trappings of Willem Dafoe’s wonderfully weird Godwin Baxter pay homage to Shelley’s seminal Frankenstein.
Without spoiling too much, Bella is a child in the body of an adult (a gross simplification), embarking on a journey of self-discovery and… have you heard this one before? Yeah, so the born-yesterday trope is not new, especially for the Victorian era; certainly, some trappings of Willem Dafoe’s wonderfully weird Godwin Baxter pay homage to Shelley’s seminal Frankenstein. The performances should be praised all round: Mark Ruffalo casts aside his classic awkwardness, becoming a debaucherous lawyer and constant source of humour, and Ramy Youssef is a convincingly compassionate and enamoured young scientist.
Despite the trope, Poor Things sets itself apart primarily through a fantastic script, at once hilarious and thought-provoking. Tony McNamara writes again with Lanthimos after the critical success of 2018’s The Favourite, producing several hilarious bumps and emotional swells over the almost two-and-a-half-hour runtime, not dragging once. The film is an eighteen, and it sure does put that rating to use. Maybe not one to watch with the family unless they’re chill with watching Emma Stone get it on many, many times. There is a lot to make of the film’s portrayal of sexual liberation. Some have interpreted these themes as derivative third-wave feminism, but I don’t think the film ever simply suggests that women are liberated by ‘having sex a lot’. That ignores the script’s subtleties, I think it confronts these issues and asks questions, but never asserts.
Some have interpreted these themes as derivative third-wave feminism, but I don’t think the film ever simply suggests that women are liberated by having sex a lot.
By giving the developed female body to a ‘blank slate’ of a brain, Poor Things explores how we interface with our bodies, how they interface with the world and, especially for Bella, how men interface with her body. The male characters are in parts modelled off Victorian staples of patriarchy from the time, and they seek to control Bella constantly.
What makes Bella’s story so compelling is how hopeful and unconstrained she is, unburdened by any preconceived ideas of how she must act. Watching her earnestly tackle the controlling forces around her is pretty inspiring in an age of cynical, morally grey protagonists, and definitely worth a watch.