'Poor Things' (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) Film Review | JG Review
'Poor Things, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos (141mins) | In Theatres January 12th, 2024
Hey there, divas. This review has taken a little longer to write up than anticipated, not least in part due to my own capitulation to the so-called 'BFI Flu', which has rattled the lungs of almost everyone at the festival. There was also the small matter (by which I mean small in size, and not in importance) of a baby. You see, I entered the screening of Yorgos Lanthimos' latest flick already on the edge of my seat; my sister-in-law had gone into labour 48 hours earlier, and I still hadn't heard anything from my brother when I sat down to commence this showing.
As Poor Things came to a conclusion and I was able to check my phone I still hadn't received a text, but about 20 minutes after the credits had rolled, while mid-way through an Americano order in a nearby Cafe Nero, I got the good news. I'd like to publicly apologise here to the kindly barista in Leicester Square who was serving me when I got the green flag; I too would be confused if a man came into my store at 10.30am and started showing me photos of a newborn whilst beaming "look—she's finally here!"
By the time I arrived at the hospital a double rainbow had appeared in the sky, as if to biblically herald the baby's arrival (I'm sure I saw three kings shuffle past the Simply Food as I gave my brother a hug). These contemporaneous events thus prompt me to dedicate this review to my newborn niece; don't worry little one, you'll be the proud owner of a JG Review baby-grow in due course...
It’s apt, then, that Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things is itself an ode to the trials and tribulations of growing up—albeit one told through a distinctly gothic, morbid lens. The film follows Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter, whose very young mind at the beginning of the film is stretched, stuffed and stimulated during an odyssey across a heavily stylised Europe. And that’s where I’d like to start this review—on the subject of Lanthimos’ stylisation.
The director has always had distinct visual flair (his use of digital photography in The Favourite, for example, was quite impressive). Still, his uber-stylised depictions of Paris, Lisbon and London in Poor Things feel more successful than anything he's achieved before, and stand spiritually in line with the cinematic visions of Burton and Del Toro. The psychedelic, gothic landscapes that form Bella’s global playground feel genuinely whimsical to traverse, rich with perversion and pomp, and the artistry that Lanthimos brings to these sets is - honestly - pretty impeccable.
This masterclass in world-building is made all the more impactful given our protagonist's initial entrapment within ‘God’s House’ (referring not to the bearded man upstairs, but to Willem Defoe’s ‘Godfrey’, who here plays a Victor Frankenstein-like role). The prologue sees Bella housebound, and takes a cue from The Wizard of Oz in that it's shot exclusively in black and white. Bella's eventual exit is typified by a cinematic transition into technicolour; Lanthimos' big-wide-world offers the viewer (just as it offers Bella herself) with a stunning, boots-the-house-down colour explosion, eliciting awe, yes, but intimidation too. It's a filmic cliche, but Lanthimos makes it impressive and effective nonetheless.
But 'Poor Things' offers more than just mise-en-scène; this provocative adaptation of Alasdair Gray's novel (of the same name) offers a refreshing new take on the Frankenstein tale, posing questions about feminine agency, sexuality and social mobility in a mode that Emma Stone feels particularly suited to. The actress brings an immense warmth to Bella, who begins the film as a non-verbal child and eventually evolves into a character that has the potential to become quite beloved in the horror canon. Stone's comedic chops are also on display in full-force; she has a real knack for re-energising platitudes that could bog down a lesser performer.
The wider cast are all pretty swell here, too. Defoe impresses in his supporting role, and Mark Ruffalo is also pleasing (despite a very questionable accent choice). I was lucky enough, too, to have a fan-favourite guest attend my screening of Poor Things; those who have also read my Saltburn review might remember the chortling Santa Claus impersonator I sat next to during the film. You'll all be relieved to know he's safe and well, for his "oh ho hos" were literally echoing throughout the cinema, occasionally prompting laughter from the rest of us in response to his overly-vocal satisfaction.
I need to wrap up this messy little review (which I'll admit has been more of a memoir than a film discussion), so I'll try and get back on topic. This isn't a film that everyone will enjoy, not least due to the blackness of its humour, but fans of Lanthimos and fans of The Favourite will certainly enjoy the ride. Though it drags a little in its second act and doesn't quite live up to his Coleman-led predecessor, I found Poor Things to be wholly enjoyable and even funnier than expected. Only once did I find it truly distasteful, in which an r-slur joke was made at the expense of those with learning difficulties, but the film's grand budget and vision indicates an exciting future for the director; should he continue down this route, we could be in line for some iconic visual masterpieces.
Written by James Green