Film

Emma Stone's new film Poor Things is a fantastical discovery of mind, body and world

Yorgos Lanthimos' latest is a luxurious feast for the eyes and brain and a bracing start to the new film year

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo star in Poor Things

Poor Things is a "luxurious feast for the eyes and brain". Image: Searchlight Pictures. © 2023

Ever since he broke out with shut-in family drama Dogtooth in 2009, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has specialised in disquieting strangeness in enclosed spaces. The Lobster primarily took place in a suffocating hotel for stressed singletons. The Killing of a Sacred Deer unfolded in hospital treatment rooms and an antiseptic family home.

Even Lanthimos’s award-winning 18th-century royal farce The Favourite – starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz in often exquisite period costuming – was mostly restricted to the draughty corridors and bedchambers of various National Trust-ready stately homes.

His latest film Poor Things – an adaptation of Glaswegian polymath Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel – feels like a step into a much wider, and wilder, dimension. Here is an expansive, semi-steampunk Victorian realm that is absolutely ravishing to look at. You literally cannot wait to see more, which is entirely in keeping with its thematic concerns. 

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Impressionable Bella (a bewitching Stone) is the young ward of Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a palsied, scarred but gruffly paternal surgeon whose party trick is blowing weird bubbles out of his stoma apparatus after dinner. When we first meet Bella she seems wide-eyed but developmentally challenged, a byproduct of her mysterious Frankenstein-like origins. 

As observed by Baxter’s deferential medical protege Max (Ramy Youssef), Bella is a clumsy, emotionally volatile waif whose sheltered upbringing means she is oblivious to the accepted niceties and societal constraints of Victorian London. But whenever she acts out – which is often – it feels transgressive in all the right ways. If you can’t immediately smash the patriarchy then maybe chucking crockery is the next best thing.

This doll-like young woman has an irrepressible curiosity – about the wider world, other people and, increasingly, her own body – and a fiercely independent streak. As Bella’s intelligence rapidly catches up with her physical maturity, Baxter’s last-ditch attempt to keep her isolated is to arrange a marriage with the hesitant Max on the understanding that they all agree to keep her cloistered like a fairytale princess. 

It might even have worked, if not for rakish lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). After being commissioned to draft a marriage contract with some notably restrictive clauses, Wedderburn’s salacious curiosity is so piqued that he seeks out Bella and spirits her away for the Victorian equivalent of a Carry On-style dirty weekend: a luxury cruise to Lisbon.

What is intended to be a brief hedonistic sojourn becomes something far more meaningful, as Bella soaks up all that is good and bad about the world and struggles to process the constant injustice she witnesses. Things become especially stark when the grand ship docks in north Africa, where the gap between the gilded rich and the mortally destitute is extreme. 

Bella’s accelerated sexual athleticism also rapidly outpaces the oleaginous, entertainingly insecure Wedderburn. (Watching the Dick Dastardly-like Ruffalo fall to pieces is a hoot.) When the couple eventually end up penniless in Paris the ragged casanova bails out, leaving Bella to enrol in the university of life at a semi-respectable brothel. 

If you’ve heard anything about Poor Things – which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year and waltzed away with the Golden Lion – it’s probably that it contains a greater number of explicit sex scenes than the last decade of mainstream Hollywood movies put together. That is certainly the case, but it doesn’t feel particularly exploitative or prurient. The heightened and enthusiastic tone of the film – where Stone has a prominent producer credit – means that it all feels of a piece with Bella’s exploratory nature. 

With its central conceit of an innocent, bubble-wrapped doll sallying off into a potentially scary real world, Poor Things also feels like a kissing cousin to Barbie. And like that billion-dollar smash it loses a little momentum and verve in its final phase. Poor Things gets grim in its final chapter when the typically effective Christopher Abbott turns up as a brutal blast from Bella’s past. 

But if his previous works have often left a deliberately acrid aftertaste, Lanthimos finds something akin to a happy ending here. It is a dazzling showcase for Stone – who undergoes an incredible transformation over the course of the running time – and a bracing start to a new film year, like jumping into a near-frozen loch. Poor Things is a luxurious feast for the eyes and brain (whether yours has been recently transplanted or not). 

Poor Things is in cinemas from 12 January.  

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