Poor Things (2023, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) – BFI London Film Festival

by | Oct 22, 2023

Certificate: TBC

Running Time: 141 mins

UK Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

UK Release Date: 12 January 2024

REVIEWED AT BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2023

WHO’S IN POOR THINGS?

Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Christopher Abbott, Jerrod Carmichael, Margaret Qualley, Kathryn Hunter, Suzy Bemba, Hanna Schygulla, Vicki Pepperdine, Wayne Brett, Tom Stourton, Carminho, Jerskin Fendrix

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Yorgos Lanthimos (director, producer), Tony McNamara (writer), Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe and Emma Stone (producers), Jerskin Fendrix (composer), Robbie Ryan (cinematographer), Yorgos Mavropsaridis (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A woman (Stone) is brought back to life and sets out to experience the world…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON POOR THINGS?

There are some reoccurring director-actor collaborations out there that just make complete and utter sense: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, Wes Anderson and Bill Murray, the Coen brothers and George Clooney, Martin Scorsese and both Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, the list goes on and on. However, perhaps the most unlikely of such collaborations to come along as of late is the one between Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director known for absurdist and often alienating pieces like Dogtooth and The Lobster, and actor Emma Stone whose bubbly and charismatic on-screen persona, in addition to her excellent comedic timing, has won her continuous praise among populist audiences and even an Oscar for her work on La La Land.

Neither person, with their wildly differing approaches to their craft, should go together on paper. But, between their first collaboration on the sharp-tongued regal comedy The Favourite, and now their latest joint effort Poor Things, it’s quite clear that Lanthimos’ absurdist style and Stone’s populist appeal are more alike than they first seem, and both are put to extraordinary use in this wondrous and imaginative work of art that brings out the best in each of them.

Adapted from Alasdair Gray’s novel of the same name by screenwriter Tony McNamara (who also co-wrote The Favourite), Poor Things is set initially in Victorian London, where facially-scarred scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) has successfully reanimated the corpse of a pregnant woman (Stone) that had jumped to her death, with the brain of her unborn foetus transplanted inside her head. The woman, newly named Bella Baxter, at first has an extremely infantile sensibility, much to the fascination of both Godwin and his smitten student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), but soon her vocabulary and curiosity for the world outside, as well as her discovery of sexual pleasure, grows to a point where she naively runs off with caddish lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) on a global adventure of hedonism, and learns a great deal about herself and what it is to be a woman of independent thought in this particular time period.

More than ever, Yorgos Lanthimos leans into his hybrid brand of surrealism and absurdism to create a dazzling world that you wish the likes of Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton still had the capacity to create. He presents an intentionally overblown version of Victorian society that is rich with eccentricity, with lavishly designed sets and costumes that are eye-catching in their over-the-top nature, while Robbie Ryan’s wide-angle and occasionally fish-eye lens cinematography playfully distorts the properness in which its larger-than-life characters are expected to inhabit.

There’s so much to marvel at in the backgrounds of all these different places we travel to, from the whimsically weird stuff around Dr. Godwin Baxter’s house like various animal hybrids including one with a duck’s head on a dog’s body and even one with a pig’s head on the body of a chicken, to the various steampunk designs of gondola lifts and extravagant cruise lines. It is such an imaginative piece of filmmaking, one that Lanthimos goes the full hog with in embracing its utter insanity, to where chapter titles are accompanied by some truly surreal imagery that could only come from the dreams of a highly creative madman.

Meanwhile, Emma Stone – also a producer on the film – delivers a kind of central performance that has never been executed in quite as lucrative, or even as impressive, a fashion. Bella Baxter is a character whose childlike naivety could easily grow tiresome, or misguided to the point of going full r-word, if an actor like Stone wasn’t able to fully encapsulate her rapidly evolving state, going from the mindset of an unruly toddler who throws temper tantrums and smashes things on the floor, to a more articulate and steadfast person within mere scenes.

It’s an all-encompassing performance that Stone pulls off here, one that can be incredibly physical as well as emotionally taxing, as you see this person develop right in front of your eyes as she absorbs everything from social cues to the joys of masturbation and full-on penetrative sex, but the actor amazingly keeps a steady head as she reveals newer and more interesting layers to her character as the film goes along, ensuring your interest is held at all times. It’s perhaps the best work Stone has yet done, as she shines among a cast that also include a hilariously campy Mark Ruffalo and a soulful turn by Willem Dafoe in some effective make-up, with some memorable supporting turns by Ramy Youssef, Jerrod Carmichael and Christopher Abbott.

The absurdist style of Lanthimos and the daring performance of Stone both turn Poor Things into the kind of cinematic fairy tale that precious few filmmakers dare to make nowadays. It is a beautifully demented masterpiece that holds your attention for all of its 141-minute runtime (only threatening to feel past its limit during a sudden turn late in the movie that adds an extra ten minutes during a reasonable endpoint), and cements a brand-new director/actor collaboration that has it within them to be the wildest and strangest of the lot, but also one of the most imaginative duos you could come across in modern filmmaking.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Poor Things is an extremely imaginative work of art that is absurdly excellent, carried by Yorgos Lanthimos’s creative world-building and an all-encompassing turn by a never-better Emma Stone.

Five out of five stars

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