Poor Things is being compared to Frankenstein a lot. While its novel of the same name (written by Alasdair Gray) is meant to be a feminist retelling of the Mary Shelley story, people forget that the latter first published anonymously in order to be taken seriously as a writer. It is speculated that the story concept stemmed from her grief around her miscarriage. These throughlines are carried over into the Emma Stone-led film, which is filled with its own moral and feminist philosophies that result in one of the most fascinating and best films of the year.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ eighth film opens with a death and a revival of Stone’s character. Brought back to life by Willem Dafoe’s deformed Dr. Godwin Baxter, we soon learn that she is not so much his temporary patient but the result of an experiment where her brain was replaced infant’s brain. Baxter names her Bella and raises her within the confines of his London complex. He then brings in his student the prim and proper Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) to help study her progress. Bella speaks in a toddler-like babble, running amuck, and peeing on the floor. All social propriety goes out the door, fairly early.
When she discovers her need for independence and sexuality at the same time, Dr. Baxter betroths her to McCandles, inadvertently subjecting her to a roguish dandy lawyer Duncan Wedderburn. Willing to give her the sexual satisfaction she craves, she forces her father to let her go.
She finds a lot more than sexual satisfaction. Fascinated by the outside world, she starts to crave answers from it and she soon realizes that the men in her life cannot give them to her. Eventually, her search for meaning and her origin leads her on a cruise, into a brothel, and eventually back to her father’s estate.
Emma Stone gives a deliciously feral and rich performance as Bella. Her choices feel instinctual as she disappears into the role. With a twirl and a jump, Bella Baxter will be one of the most seminal roles Stone will ever play, a career touchstone if you will. With her long hair, thick eyebrows, and limited vocabulary, you can’t take your eyes off of her. Sure, she has a lot of sex onscreen, but you eventually become desensitized to it as Stone’s performance is so compelling.
The production design – from Bella’s enormous poofed sleeves to the painted sky to the dreamlike steampunk Victorian architecture, is brilliant. Lanthimos does some of his best world-building here, combining the macabre with the stylings of a Georges Méliès film. It’s hard to determine where this would fall amongst his filmography but Poor Things ranks high. He is reteaming with writer Tony McNamara (The Favorite) whose understanding of these characters and of human nature leads to some of the best quips and laughs of the year.
While this movie belongs to Stone, the supporting cast is just as committed. Mark Ruffalo gives off a Marlon Brando in Streetcar vibe combined with the vapid and himbo arrogance of Ryan Gosling’s Ken in Barbie. Willem Dafoe is unrecognizable as Dr. Baxter, while Ramy Youssef brings grounded politeness to the film’s crude nature. Christopher Abbot and Jerrod Carmichael pop up in two smaller roles, the latter of which left you wanting more of him.
Poor Things could be polarizing for some audiences but Stone’s performance mixed with Lanthimos’ direction is one of the best cinematic combinations of the year. Sure, others will have opinions of its abundant sexual depictions and what that means for feminism, but at its core, its a story of a woman immune to the patriarchy and all the adventures she has along the way.
Poor Things is in select theaters Friday before a wide release on Dec. 15. Watch the trailer below.