Poor Things, the recent recipient of a record-setting 7 awards from the Indiana Film Journalists Association, is a lot. Then again, it never pretends it isn’t. The opening shot is awash with what seems like a thousand hues of blue, cerulean bleeding into cobalt as a woman with her back to the camera prepares to jump off a bridge. This is the latest grandiose vision from director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose previous film The Favourite was a provocative take on the costume drama and his newest is certain to widen some eyes in the audience as well. But unlike the recent Saltburn, Lanthimos’ provocations are borne organically from the story that he’s telling and convey a deeper subtext than simply being shocking for the sake of being shocking.
Emma Stone gives a career-best turn as Bella Baxter, a young woman living under the care of deformed surgeon Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). We learn that Godwin found Bella moments after she attempted suicide and tapped into his mad scientist side to reanimate her while she still had a bit of brain activity left. The experiment saved Bella’s life but left her with the mental capacity of an infant, able to form rudimentary sentences and discover the world around her anew. Helping her along is one of Godwin’s students Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), who quickly develops feelings for Bella while assisting her. But when Godwin’s brash lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) stops by the house one day, he sets out to free Bella from her bondage and travel across the world.
The world of Poor Things is entirely its own but it begins in a version of Victorian London with steam engines and resurrection machines and incorporates even more anachronisms and impossibilities as the setting expands further. The production design is a swirling canvas of Terry Gilliam-esque futurism with German Expressionist monumentalism, a surreal palette upon which to tell this exceedingly peculiar journey. With his music score, composer Jerskin Fendrix finds appropriately wonky motifs to weave into the music. For instance, Bella’s theme sounds like a harp that is being played in a giant sink filled with dirty dishwater, its undulating timbres matching the uneven steps of Bella’s toddler-like gait.
If this all sounds oppressively weird, Emma Stone’s transcendent performance alone makes Poor Things well worth seeing. It’s a tremendously physical role, requiring her to mimic the movements of a newborn at the outset and then slowly recalibrating motor skills as her character finds her footing. But it’s also language-centric work, and exceptionally funny to boot, as Bella starts with choppy phonetics and soon forms more complex sentences with abandon for tact or social grace. The notion of “polite society” is examined through numerous lenses and through her character, Stone navigates the contradictions and quandaries that the so-called cultured class throws her way. Tony McNamara, who also wrote the biting screenplay for The Favourite, gives her devilishly humorous lines to play with all the way along.
Poor Things is getting all sorts of critical acclaim, and rightfully so, but I must confess a tiny gripe with the movie and that’s with some of the cinematography by Lanthimos regular Robbie Ryan. He’s a terrific DP, responsible not only for The Favourite but other exquisitely-shot films like C’mon C’mon and long take fantasia Medusa Deluxe from earlier this year. Here, he uses a myriad of film lenses to contribute to the movie’s otherworldly field but overdoes it in a few places. At several points, he uses a lens so narrow that it looks like a porthole on a cruise ship and it comes across as a bit too forced for my tastes. During a rollicking dance scene like the one from The Favourite, he even moves to handheld with this constrained focus and the results are fussy and overindulgent. Having said that, it’s a minor nitpick and certainly doesn’t keep Poor Things from remaining a major artistic achievement from one of the most fascinating filmmakers around at the moment.
Score – 4.5/5
More movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom, starring Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson, is a superhero sequel in which Aquaman is forced to protect Atlantis and his loved ones from devastation after an ancient power is unleashed by Manta obtaining the cursed Black Trident.
Anyone But You, starring Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell, is a romantic comedy about a pair of young attractive people who pretend to be a couple during a destination wedding in Australia, even though they secretly hate each other.
Migration, starring Kumail Nanjiani and Elizabeth Banks, is an animated adventure comedy about a family of ducks who try to convince their overprotective father to go on the vacation of a lifetime.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup