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Film review: A triumph of absurdist fantasy, ‘Poor Things’ delivers Emma Stone at her best

Emma Stone stars as Bella Baxter in the comedic fantasy “Poor Things.” Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the adaptation premiered in theaters Dec. 8. (Courtesy of Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures)

“Poor Things”

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Searchlight Pictures

Dec. 8

By Natalie Agnew

Dec. 9, 2023 12:03 a.m.

Overflowing with unadulterated animation, “Poor Things” is anything but pitiful.

Sailing onto select screens Friday, acclaimed auteur Yorgos Lanthimos helms the grimly comedic, absurdist fantasy that splendidly adapts Alasdair Gray’s 1990s novel of the same title. The film tracks Bella Baxter’s (Emma Stone) indulgent quest for knowledge and liberation after she is resurrected from the dead by an eccentric scientist. Crafting an utterly entrancing distorted fairytale, Lanthimos departs from his clinical bleakness to deliver a humanist triumph with Stone’s knockout performance at the thundering pulse.

[Related: Film review: Sinister adaptation of ‘Eileen’ explores woman’s complex pseudosexual relationship]

Gray’s novel offers a feminist iteration of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” in which the artificial creature Bella is both her mother and her child – essentially, her brain is replaced with her unborn infant’s. Instead of a horrific plot for retribution, she seeks freedom from her creator, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), and her betrothed, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef). The film takes Bella’s autonomy one step further, reframing her as the sole author of her own story rather than her creator’s protege McCandles, who narrates much of the novel.

As Bella descends into midnight waters in the opening scene, the audience is immediately submerged in the picture’s beautifully bizarre depiction of the Victorian era. In his seventh feature film, Lanthimos employs his unique brand of elaborate world-building perfected in projects like “The Lobster” on a more expansive scale, foregoing any attempt at realist pretenses. Through the looking glass of cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s fish-eye and wide-angle lenses, each frame provides a sense of manufactured dreams that remains immersive down to the 141st minute of runtime.

With an artificial twist, production designers Shona Heath and James Price reinvent extravagant studio sets reminiscent of early twentieth-century films like “The Wizard of Oz.” Intricately artistic panels divide the set into five distinct chapters – London, Lisbon, The Ship, Alexandria and Paris – each with their own vivid watercolor palette to evoke their precise atmospheres. Adding accents, Jerskin Fendrix’s manipulated wind instrument-laden score provides a backdrop of forged unease and discovery, impeccably accompanying Bella’s epic.

Amid a whirlwind of perfectly excessive performances, Stone remarkably captures Bella’s evolution in her physicality and intonation with an earnestly unflinching characterization. From the start, she carries an infant-like, floundering shuffle, complete with flailing arms and an inability to keep food in her mouth. Stone never ceases to be shockingly surreal yet believable as her depiction imperceptibly advances with every encounter. In a narrative constantly tonally oscillating between comedy, drama, horror and beauty, it is Academy Award-winner Stone at her career best that marries the film’s highest ambitions.

Bolstering Stone’s performance is a stunningly theatrical ensemble – with the glimmering spotlight on Dafoe as the deranged yet paternal doctor, Youssef as his diligent student, and Mark Ruffalo as the mustache-adorned scoundrel Duncan Wedderburn. Leaving no line underutilized, Ruffalo is a comedic revelation whether he’s screaming at Bella à la “A Streetcar Named Desire” or derisively twitching his eyes after being slapped in the face. To put it mildly, when Ruffalo’s unbridled ridiculous melodrama meets Stone’s deadpan delivery, the results are riotous, which is only enhanced by masterfully paced dialogue.

[Related: Film review: Opulent aesthetics can’t save ‘Saltburn’ from narrative vacuity]

“The Great” creator Tony McNamara, who collaborated with Lanthimos on “The Favourite,” applies his typical aristocratic black comedy to concoct an uproariously droll script. Each line of dialogue is rich with running jokes like Bella referring to sex as “furious jumping” and Dr. Godwin as “God,” or the doctor’s offhand soliloquies detailing his father’s ill-treatment, which he naturally excuses as his father being “a man of science.” Further, the text’s feminist threads, though somewhat repetitive and lacking in nuance, are never overexplained to the point of condescension.

Boldly underscoring Bella’s evolution is costume designer Holly Waddington’s avant-garde, genre-bending period pieces that mature with the protagonist’s development. Gargantuan creature-like sleeves particular to the late 19th century are a constant feature throughout, combined with 60s-inspired white square-toed boots and geometrically futuristic sunglasses. By the culmination of the film, Bella dons darker and more conventional tones and silhouettes, reflecting her arc but also her further assimilation into societal norms.

Contrary to expectations for a Lanthimos film, Bella does receive an idyllically outlandish fairytale ending while leaving the audience with questions as to whether more challenging themes were left unexplored. However, there is something profoundly invigorating about a film that refuses to torture the female character for the sake of spectacle. The Frankenstein that is Bella Baxter completes her exploratory odyssey to great success and is no less deserving of a hero’s conclusion.

The subversive victory of “Poor Things” is that this absurdly monstrous masterpiece has a heart.

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Natalie Agnew
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