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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Poor Things

To describe director Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest film Poor Things, which is adapted by Tony McNamara (The Favourite) from the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, as creatively uninhibited hardly does justice to the wild, wild ride that this explosively inventive picture takes us on.

Driven by a courageous and physically committed performance, from Emma Stone, the film follows her journey as Bella Baxter, at the start of the picture a barely verbal blank slate, who embarks on an autodidact voyage of discovery to become the ultimate

self-made woman.

Like much in Poor Things, the period is impossible to pin down exactly. The story of Bella unfolds in a parallel past, a gothic, steampunk-infused Victoriana, a world that is distorted by the patriarchal power disparities in society.

Without giving away the specifics, the picture is a subversive spin on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with the role of Bella’s creator and guardian taken by unorthodox genius Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe).

Called “God” by Bella, Godwin bears grotesque scars on his face and body resulting from his childhood experience as the subject of his father’s deranged scientific curiosity – an experience that failed to stymie his own rather baroque quest for empirical facts.

When Godwin recruits eager student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) to keep a record of Bella’s accelerated progress, her grasp of language expands exponentially.

But Bella’s hunger for knowledge and experience is too voracious to be contained within the walls of Godwin’s mansion. She grasps the opportunity offered by caddish lawyer and man-about-town Duncan Wedderburn (a marvellously hammy Mark Ruffalo) and ventures forth from London, first to Lisbon, then by steamship to Alexandria and finally to a Parisian brothel.

As Bella’s horizons broaden, so the look of the film alters to encompass her experiences. The chapter set predominantly in Godwin’s home is black and white, but once Bella ventures forth, the film shifts into colour. But not just any colour – there’s an uncanny, hyperreal quality to the palette that makes each frame look like a hand-tinted piece of Victorian postcard erotica.

Stone’s virtuoso use of her body – the way it inhabits space, the way she gradually masters her gangling, string-like limbs, the guilelessly open play of emotions in her face – is one of the most crucial elements in our experience of Bella’s journey.

That journey is supported by a deliciously eccentric score by Jerskin Fendrix. An uneasy, detuned four-note motif played on flayed violin strings opens the film and returns in various incarnations throughout, sounding at one point like a hippo mating with a harmonium. The gradual build of intricacy and sophistication in the music brilliantly mirrors Bella’s intellectual growth.

Equally important is the work of the film’s various design teams and Robbie Ryan’s ever-curious camera. Bella’s appetite for novelty is reflected in film-making that evokes a similar sense of wonder and discovery in the audience.

From the quirky flamboyance of Holly Waddington’s costumes to the off-kilter production design by Shona Heath and James Price, Poor Things is an endlessly fascinating carnival of oddness. The production design details are particularly fascinating.

Absolutely batshit crazy, utterly filthy and a true original: Poor Things is as good as Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone have ever been.

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