In blue pleats the woman stands atop the bridge against billowing grey clouds before plunging into the dark waters of the Thames; her body pulled from the water, what should be the end is just the beginning of another adventure even stranger, that of a woman named Bella, the ward of the disfigured surgeon Godwin Baxter, experimental and controversial in both philosophy and approach, who requests medical student Max McCandles to assist him in Bella’s education and assimilation into the world.
The body of a woman with the mind of a child, her mental and her physical ages “not quite synchronised,” she is a challenge which McCandles finds entrancing as she swings from enthusiasm to childish tantrums when her needs are not met, expanding her vocabulary and demanding new experiences and to be free to explore the world beyond the confines of the home filled with contraptions, chimeras and contradictions overseen by the man she calls God without any notion of irony.
Based on the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray and adapted by Tony McNamara, director Yorgos Lanthimos continues his explorations of eccentric characters in extreme situations with Poor Things, starring Birdman’s Emma Stone as Bella, galvanised into life and exploring her emancipation as she sheds her naivety along with her constricting gowns and The Lighthouse’s Willem Dafoe as Baxter, perhaps the only man who truly understands Bella despite his apparently harsh demeanour, with Andor’s Kathryn Hunter as Madame Swiney and Mr Robot’s Ramy Youssef as the patiently enduring Max.
Portraying a world described as being full of sugar and violence, Bella travels the waves under spun clouds and watercolour skies, witnessing the farces and tragedy of human life, experiencing enlightenment as she grows beyond the restrictions and expectations placed upon her by the men around her, primarily Avengers: Endgame’s Mark Ruffalo as lascivious lawyer Duncan Wedderburn who presumes to show Bella the world from the window of a cruise ship cabin.
Bella physically engaged with all she encounters, the bold primary colours of her emotional palette becoming more complex under the floating cable cars of Lisbon and the orange skies of Alexandria before she rids herself of the luggage which encumbers her and discovers independence in Paris, Poor Things is a parallel to the story of Frankenstein although, the journey undertaken by a woman willingly released by her creator, the destination is comprehension of self and the world rather than revenge.
Playing out in encompassing sets of exquisite Art Nouveau architecture and riches often distorted through fish-eye lenses and flickering from monochrome to ravishing colour, Stone embodies Bella’s rebirth and personal evolution which would be thwarted by the masculine possessiveness represented by Wedderburn and Piercing’s Christopher Abbott as enraged widower Alfie Blessington, the men who stumble in her wake and would repress Bella as she recreates herself ultimately the Poor Things of the title, their petty jealousies making the courtiers of The Favourite, Stone’s previous collaboration with Lanthimos, seem positively well adjusted.