Poor Things first-look review: Emma Stone has never been better, and a moustache-twirling Mark Ruffalo has a ball

Venice International Film Festival 2023: Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film won’t be in Irish cinemas until January. It’ll be well worth the wait

Poor Things
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Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cert: None
Starring: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Yousse, Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Abbott
Running Time: 2 hrs 21 mins

It has been five years since Yorgos Lanthimos – and Dublin’s fecund Element Pictures – debuted The Favourite at Venice amid a volley of acclaim that ultimately propelled it to 10 Academy Award nominations and one win. In that time the world shut down and Lanthimos embarked on what turned out to be a notably lengthy production. His lavish adaptation, produced by Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe for Element, of a famously tricky Alasdair Gray novel began shooting more than two years ago (since then the director has completed another film) and has been trailed for the past 12 months as a possible inclusion at major festivals.

If the response among hard-bitten hacks at the Salla Grande for the Venice International Film Festival is any guide, the wait has been well worthwhile. This journalist has rarely heard such whooping after a festival press screening.

What we have is a twisty variation on the Frankenstein mythos – or do we mean Bride of Frankenstein mythos? – that never lets up in its interrogation of power imbalance between the genders. It is funny, beautiful and incisive. It has its flaws, but for the most part those flaws derive from the forgivable sin of overreach.

Emma Stone, star of The Favourite, has never been better as, first, a traumatised woman who throws herself fatally from a bridge in a steampunk variation on 19th-century London. A not-quite-mad scientist named Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe, with fewer bits of scenery hanging from lips than we may have feared) pulls the body from the Thames and – this emerges retrospectively but still quite early on – transplants the brain of the dead woman’s unborn child into her own skull. Baxter then sets about coaxing the adult-baby into the eventually grown Bella Baxter.


More than anything else, Poor Things is about the politics of control. Baxter is a deeply troubled individual. Various chimera, the results of experiments, roam his elaborate house. The head of a pig on the back end of a chicken. The head of a duck on the back end of a dog. Bella refers to Godwin as “God” for much of the story. But he and his assistant, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), come across more as the image-makers in Pygmalion – age-swapped Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering – than the misogynistic monsters that abound beyond the safety of the Baxterian Eden.

Bella gets an education in that strain when the ghastly Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) arrives to poach Bella from a now-infatuated McCandles. Her creator raises barely an objection to her leaving. Ruffalo’s cad, transporting her from Lisbon to Alexandria to Paris, is proud to be a sexual libertine but is constantly outraged by Bella’s (hilarious to us) bluntness in polite society. Her bafflement at his assumed dominance drives him half-crazy. When someone makes a euphemistic gag at the dinner table she belts out: “Oh, you mean his penis!” (Definite nods to Pygmalion and My Fair Lady there.)

Ruffalo has such a ball in the role – practically twirling a moustache – that it proves easy to forgive a shaky English accent. The vowel-perfect Stone brilliantly manoeuvres the transformation from oversized infant to an intellectually alert autodidact. Often shot from below, her taut face gives the impression of constantly simmering appetites, her child’s eye ever open to the emperor’s proverbial nakedness.

All this plays out amid the most extravagant visuals yet seen in a Lanthimos film. The Dublin cinematographer Robbie Ryan employs much fisheye lens to accentuate the sense of psychological dislocation. Occasional round-screen points towards coming silent cinema.

Holly Waddington’s baroque, often colour-coded costumes are to die for. Less successful are the elaborate, computer-generated exteriors that suggest Terry Gilliam when he leans too far into his steampunk obsessions. A cruise ship from a retro-sci-fi video game. Supposedly fantastic cable cars running into the sky. There is a sense of a successful project striving a little too hard for a cheap wow (not literally cheap, obviously, but you know what we mean).

The real fireworks are fizzing in the intellectual space between hugely gifted actors at the height of their powers. It is rare that something so thoughtful offers an audience such a good time. Gray might have wished the film were a little more Scottish, but he would be delighted to see so much of the novel’s spirit retained.

Alas, Irish audiences will have to wait until January to enjoy Poor Things in commercial cinemas. The strike, you know. It really is worth waiting another few months.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist