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Diana Johnson reviews 'Poor Things'

Emma Stone as Bella Baxter | Image by: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo

3 min read

A steampunk tale of gothic horror with glorious cinematography, Yorgos Lanthimos’ film pushes the boundaries of artistic freedom with this disturbing – yet hopeful – black comedy

First of all, a prediction.

This film will definitely not be televised on Christmas Day 2024 at 3.10pm after the King’s speech as a cosy family film we can all sit together on the sofa to watch.

Although I would be cautious about nailing it down too tightly in terms of genre, Poor Things is a combination of science fantasy, black comedy and a feminist awakening allegory, adapted by Tony McNamara from Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and starring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe, Poor Things tells the story of a woman who kills herself, only to have the brain of a baby transplanted by oddball scientist Dr Godwin “God” Baxter into the skull of her duly reanimated corpse.

The new Bella Baxter then goes on a voyage of discovery, learning to walk, then talk, and eventually becoming a self-made, articulate and independent woman on a journey, discovering her sexuality. She wrestles control over her own life, breaking free from male-dominated power dynamics.

Most of the men she encounters exploit her – mainly sexually – and in time Bella learns what had happened to the pre-suicide version of herself.

Her travels take her from London to Alexandria, to Lisbon and Paris – or at least highly stylised conceptions of those locations.

The film has an 18 certificate. Indeed, some 50 year-olds might seek parental guidance before seeing a film where blood, nudity and phallic imagery are so prominent and profane language is deployed as elegantly as in The Gentlemen

The film has an 18 certificate. Indeed, some 50 year-olds might seek parental guidance

There is much “furious jumping” – the phrase Bella uses for sex in this film. One can almost hear Alan Bennett describing it as “mucky” and I couldn’t help wondering what the late Mary Whitehouse would have made of Poor Things.

Pushing the boundaries of artistic freedom, some of the gorier scenes certainly put the cutting into edginess. 

It will be one of the more distinctive releases of 2024 and it stands very much on its own. However, one sees inevitable echoes of past fictional creations in literature and cinema.

The Frankenstein element is the most obvious, but I saw dystopian echoes too of A Clockwork Orange and even a mutated Animal Farm.

In morality terms, there is something of the controversial Dennis Potter television play Brimstone and Treacle that caused so much controversy in the mid-1970s.

Poor Things
Image by: BFA / Alamy Stock Photo

The cinematography is impressive, with a glorious use of monochrome, vibrant colour, rich CGI and the frequent deployment of the fish-eye lens. Much of the imagery combines steam punk and gothic horror with Victoriana, although it is not set in a particular time period. I was reminded too of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

There were many amusing moments and astute observations that feminists will easily recognise. Politics enters the story too.

A disturbing, odd and dark film, Poor Things is also hopeful. Some of the characters meet a fitting end.

Suitably forewarned, you should decide what to take from Poor Things yourself and whether all the “muck”, blood and guts were so necessary.

Diana Johnson is Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North

Poor Things
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Venue: General cinema release

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