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Poor Things review: Emma Stone is properly unsettling in this provocative feminist fable drenched in Victorian horror

This deranged comedy with shades of Pygmalion is a feast of cinematic excess loaded with intellectual traction and psychological grit

Poor Things
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Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cert: 18
Starring: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Kathryn Hunter, Christopher Abbott, Jerrod Carmichael, Hanna Schygulla, Margaret Qualley
Running Time: 2 hrs 21 mins

The original plan was to release the latest collaboration between Yorgos Lanthimos and Dublin’s Element Pictures mere days after its premiere at Venice International Film Festival, in September. Its emergence would (as things worked out) have coincided with the film winning the Golden Lion and the concomitant burst of publicity. The hot takes and backlashes would not yet have set in.

Well, the Hollywood actors’ strike did for that. Poor Things, a provocative feminist fable drenched in the port-wine shadows of Victorian horror, now arrives on waves of acclaim and currents of chatter.

The sexual content has (particularly in the United States) triggered a few hot flushes. The odd unimpressed counterblast – Angelica Jade Bastién’s lucid dissent for Vulture is worth reading – has wondered if the film is quite so daring as some claim. Others have complained that the adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel has drifted too far from its Scottish origins.

On balance, however, Poor Things – winner of best comedy or musical at the Golden Globes at the weekend – has weathered the winter pretty well. It still feels as fresh and deranged and busy and funny as it did before the leaves fell. Nothing so strong and odd could hope to wholly evade critical resistance.


Emma Stone, who did such fine work for Lanthimos in The Favourite, is properly unsettling as a woman who, after death, is reanimated with the next generation of her own DNA. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a not-quite-mad scientist, scarred and patched in the Hammer Horror fashion, plucks her body from the Thames after, misused by the patriarchy, she damply takes her own life. Baxter implants her unborn baby’s still-living brain into her capacious skull and sets to raising the result as a new sort of free spirit.

We learn much of this information some 20 minutes into the film, by which stage we have acquainted ourselves with the initially clumsy, socially uninhibited Bella Baxter (as Godwin “God” Baxter dubs our heroine). There is a great deal of Shaw’s Pygmalion to the story. Godwin and his assistant Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) take on the form of an age-swapped Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering as Bella toddles her way towards awareness.

We reach a crisis when the moustache-twirling cad Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo with an uncertain English accent) arrives to poach Bella from a now-infatuated McCandles.

It may count as a sideways tribute to the film-makers to note that so headlong is the action and so witty the dialogue that it is easy to forget that we are, for much of our time with Bella, dealing with a sexualised juvenile. She still has the mind of a child. She asks the questions a child might ask. 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.) The unease is surely invited – a gesture to imbalances of gender power – but that shadow sours some of the building humour.

As the film progresses, however, the scope widens. The couple light out for heightened versions of Lisbon, Alexandria and Paris that, though tending towards off-the-peg steampunk, confirm Poor Things, after hits such as The Lobster and The Favourite, as the most ambitious collaboration yet between Element and Lanthimos. Robbie Ryan, among Ireland’s most gifted cinematographers, employs fisheye lens and circular frames to accentuate the psychotrauma. Stone, often shot from below, cunningly shifts from womanchild to emotional genius with singular dexterity.

It amounts to a dizzying feast of cinematic excess. But there is intellectual traction and psychological grit to the project. This is an essay on the politics of control expressed in the language of avant-garde circus. Though we are never more than seconds away from a good joke, and though the film has its compass set for a hopeful destination, Poor Things is imbued with a constant worry about male control heightening into violent abuse. This is as serious as comedies get.

Poor Things is previewing in selected cinemas; it opens on Friday, January 12th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

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