REVIEW: Poor Things [London Film Festival 2023]

Poor Things
4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

A mashup Victorian melodrama with a sting in the tale, Poor Things’ greatest trick is hiding the seams.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ first film since 2018’s The Favourite, Poor Things is a female Bildungsroman in which a still-developing young woman goes into the world to find herself. The crucial element: that the woman in question, Bella (Emma Stone), is Frankenstein’s Monster.

Well, not quite; though Alasdair Grey’s novel, on which the film is based, clearly draws inspiration from Mary Shelley.

Instead, Poor Things is altogether more complicated a creature. For one, it is her “creator”, the unsentimental Doctor Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) who bears the scars. Bella is beautiful, despite her stiff-limbed tottering and childlike affect. She’s also clearly an innocent, which draws men to her, like Baxter’s guileless, genuinely decent assistant (Ramy Youssef) and a sleazy, self-amused cad, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo).

Undergoing a sexual awakening, and no longer willing to be confined to Baxter’s lab, Bella proves herself more than a match for the men, benign or otherwise, who try to exert their will on her.

Alternating between radiant b-&-w cinematography and vibrant, textured color, Poor Things is a glowing, fantastical concoction. A comedy of manners executed with Gillamesque grotesquery and Andersonian exactitude, it’s odd, obscene, energetic, and deeply funny, with a score by Jerskin Fendrix that sounds like an orchestra warming up. For me, it’s a film whose pleasures lay in discovery.

Stone, with that black hair and those dark, expressive eyes, was a revelation; even in the context of an already storied, surprising career. The rest of the cast acquit themselves well, particularly Ruffalo, in a camp but studied performance that’s both vain and vanity-free; aided by a vague sense of the uncanny that comes from recognisable American actors affecting British accents, like Dafoe’s Scottish burr.

Poor Things is a film simultaneously more ambitious and more focused than any Lathimos has directed before. Reportedly in development hell since 2009, it’s a complete and fulfilling vision, often fish-eye lensed, that lends itself to adjectives and superlatives. You certainly won’t see anything else like it in the cinema this year, and you should, you really should, see it.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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