Poor Things

When the body of pregnant Victoria Blessington is retrieved shortly after she dove off a bridge, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) seizes the opportunity to continue his experimental surgery, replacing the woman’s brain with her unborn infant’s and reanimating her body.  And so Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) comes into the world in an adult body with everything to learn but she immediately shows empathy for the downtrodden, the world’s “Poor Things.”

Laura's Review: B+

The latest surreal provocation from director Yorgos Lanthimos ("Dogtooth," "The Lobster") is a darkly hilarious, sexually provocative, visually Gilliamesque tale of a liberal, feminist awakening in the Victorian era.  The adaptation of Alasdair Gray's novel by Lanthimos' "The Favorite" screenwriter Tony McNamara lessens its political and social impact in favor of the prurient (and changes the main location from Glasgow to London), but its themes, especially as resting on the capable shoulders of its wholly committed star, still transmit in wild and giddy fashion.

Class aspects are introduced early with the character of Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef, TV's 'Ramy'), a man able to study medicine because of merit rather than the moneyed privilege of his associates.  He has great admiration for Baxter, a man in a position of respect who is nonetheless regarded askance by his peers and his students due to his bizarre appearance and odor, the result, we learn gradually, of inhumane experiments conducted on him by his father, a man also held in high regard in the medical profession.  The two become friends of a sort and when McCandles is invited to Godwin’s home, he meets Bella, Baxter’s housekeeper Mrs. Prim (Vicki Pepperdine, "My Cousin Rachel") trying to contain her childish excesses.

Bella, who is still trying to gain control of her limbs and learn proper sentence structure, has made remarkable progress with the man she affectionately and unironically calls ‘God,’ but social niceties lag, ‘Candles,’ as Bella calls him, horrified to find her furiously masturbating at the breakfast table.  She’s also beginning to rebel about being kept indoors, so the two men accompany her on a visit to the park (in one of Godwin’s unique inventions, a steam powered carriage with a horse’s head mounted on its front).  She becomes betrothed to Max, but when unscrupulous lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, hilariously louche and debauched) wanders about Baxter’s home and comes across Bella in a wardrobe, the hedonist takes advantage of her naiveté, inviting her to join him on a trip to Lisbon.

Here is where production designers Shona Heath and "Paddington 2" art director James Price really ramp up the visuals, creating fanciful, day-glo versions of Lisbon, a cruise ship, Alexandria and Paris, and while we can accept most of these visions as the world filtered through a child’s eyes, some aspects, like the set-bound ship, make little sense and the horror Bella experiences in Alexandria is severely blunted by its remote, fanciful, design.  Bella’s love of ‘furious jumping’ soon wears Wedderburn out just as his embrace of booze and gambling affects their finances.  Ever practical, Bella tries to return Wedderburn to his home, but, failing that, earns money in Swiney’s (Kathryn Hunter, the three witches of Joel Coen's "The Tragedy of Macbeth") Parisian brothel with its fetishistic clientele, the tattooed madam herself not above a bite of flesh.  Back home, Candles frets reading Bella’s postcards while Baxter embarks on a new project - Felicity (Margaret Qualley) – after informing Max of Bella’s beginnings, a flashback revealing her Frankenstein’s lab beginnings.

Bella’s bizarre world is further enhanced by Jerskin Fendrix's eccentric score which begins sounding like boinging and out of tune string plucking but evolves along with Bella.  Similarly, costume designer Holly Waddington ("Lady Macbeth") infantilizes Bella in clothing which reflects her binary state, her dress gradually becoming more sophisticated as her brain catches up with her body.  The Emma Stone who arrives back in London is very different from the one who departed, her speech, carriage and appearance that of a young woman, her difference most notable in her outspokenness.  An Englishwoman in Europe who ‘mistook’ her for Victoria Blessington sets up the film’s last act, its most severe condemnation of a patriarchic society in the form of Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott).  The film also features an amused Hanna Schygulla as fellow seafarer Martha Von Kurtzroc, a stiff Jerrod Carmichael in the curtailed role of Harry Astley and Suzy Bemba ("Drift") as Toinette, Bella’s brothel bestie.  Choreographer Constanza Macras must also be noted for the film’s best scene, an uninhibited dance between Bella and Duncan in which he unsuccessfully attempts to control her like a marionette, giving the impression of an unhinged Gomez and Morticia.

Robin's Review: B

Searchlight Pictures opens "Poor Things" in select theaters on 12/8/23, expanding the following week.