Life & Culture

Film review: Poor Things – ‘A tornado of a performance from Emma Stone’

Sex in the cinema need not be exploitative


Ramy Youssef and Emma Stone in Poor Things.

Poor Things


Reviewed by John Nathan

Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest movie (previous marvels include The Favourite) achieved the seemingly impossible this week. Instead of succumbing to Barbie as it seemed all comedies must, Lanthimos’s variation of the Frankenstein story which is based on, though not entirely loyal to Alasdair Gray’s novel, pipped the biggest grossing movie of last year to the Golden Globe’s Best Comedy or Musical category.

Set in 19th century Europe this movie’s heroine Bella, played by Emma Stone in a tornado of a performance, is an experiment conducted by Willem Dafoe’s grotesquely scarred scientist Dr Godwin Baxter. Bella calls him God for short. For Baxter has done what any self respecting re-animator would do when finding himself in the possession of a pregnant suicide victim; why, inserting the brain of the live unborn baby into the scooped skull of the dead mother, of course.

The result lives in Baxter’s London mansion along with his staff and other projects, such as the chicken with the head of a pig. Like all young minds, Bella’s is a fast learner. Motor and language skills are rudimentary when we first encounter her. When Max, a diffident devotee of Baxter’s work (Ramy Youseff) is conscripted by the scientist to monitor Bella’s progress her adult limbs still move like a toddler’s. But by the time Max falls in love with his charge she is more interested in Mark Ruffalo’s Duncan Wedderburn, a caddish society fop and Lothario with whom Bella explores life, travel and (graphically filmed) sex, leaving God and poor Max to much miss the human they created and studied.

Bella’s life of discovery meanwhile is completely unencumbered by the societal conventions that keep women in their place. She develops an interest in philosophy with an intellectual and sexual abandon that first captivates Ruffalo’s swaggering Wedderburn and then drives him to distraction.

“You don’t know what a banana is but you do you know what empirical means,” he rages.

Bella meanwhile swats away mainstream film industry fears that to explicitly depict female sexuality is to exploit it.

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