Poor Things

Alasdair Gray’s skew-whiff take on Frankenstein is brought to life with wit, passion and invention by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, while Emma Stone is a revelation as Poor Things' wide-eyed heroine Bella

Film Review by Ross McIndoe | 09 Jan 2024
  • Poor Things
Film title: Poor Things
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Kathryn Hunter, Christopher Abbott, Jerrod Carmichael, Hanna Schygulla, Margaret Qualley, Suzy Bemba, Vicki Pepperdine
Release date: 12 Jan
Certificate: 18

Barbie might have found herself paired with a physicist in a porkpie hat for much of 2023, but her real kindred spirit can be found in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things

Adapted from Alasdair Gray’s phantasmagorical Frankenstein tale, Poor Things stars a young woman named Bella (Emma Stone) as she travels through a gorgeous, garish world on a quest to become a real girl. While Barbie was built by the boys at Mattel, Bella is the science experiment/adopted daughter of Doctor Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe, sporting an impressive array of facial scars and an inconsistent but consistently entertaining Scottish accent), who re-animated a recently deceased young woman by replacing her brain with that of her unborn child. And thus, Bella was born.  

She begins the story as a dawdling, toddler-like figure but her mind develops quickly – especially after she is whisked away on a globetrotting voyage by a drawling, debonair scoundrel named Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). As their journey takes them through Lisbon, Alexandria and Paris, Bella’s horizons expand at a rapid pace and she hungrily devours each new sight, sound and taste, building an identity for herself one new pleasure at a time. 

Where Barbie was missing some key parts of her anatomy, Bella discovers that she has the full complement and quickly begins finding new ways to enjoy this fact. Her journey of sexual self-discovery allows Poor Things to examine squeamish social conventions and sexist double standards in hilarious, incisive fashion. Bella sees the world through the wide eyes of a person who has arrived fresh into an adult, female body without being battered by misogyny along the way. With every frantically impassioned sex scene – and there are a great many – Bella becomes more self-possessed, more sure of her own mind and more secure in her own body, while Duncan unravels in hilarious, exasperated fashion. 

Lanthimos’s usual brand of black humour runs all through Poor Things, filling each scene with obscenity and absurdity, all delivered with typical disorienting seriousness. The world of Gray’s novel is brought to the screen through eye-catching costumes and production design that suggests Wes Anderson after an absinthe binge, while Lanthimos deploys his usual bag of fish-eye lenses and other off-kilter tricks. 

But Emma Stone is the star around which everything else revolves. It’s a bold and sweeping performance that captures the ungainly physicality of Bella’s early incarnation and the forthright woman she becomes – plus all of the messy evolutionary stages in between. While the film’s world often feels purposefully artificial, Stone ensures that there’s always an emotional reality to Bella’s journey through it. 

Poor Things is a much sweeter, more compassionate and ultimately triumphant tale than we’ve come to expect from the director of cruelly funny comedies like The Lobster and The Killing of A Sacred Deer. It’s like some mad doctor jammed a human heart into one of his grotesquely amusing constructions and made it beat. The result is a film that’s wickedly funny, deeply idiosyncratic and furiously alive.

Released 12 Jan by Disney; certificate 18