Poor Things (2023) review

Poor Things

Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film Poor Things has just been released on digital and Blu-Ray, and this is a film I had been waiting to watch for a very long time, ever since it was first announced in May 2021. Poor Things is an adaptation of Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, which, in turn, is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818). There have been multiple adaptations and reiterations of the classic novel in Hollywood, almost every single one of the more popular adaptations bringing something new to the table, but Poor Things turns the sci-fi factor up several notches and blending it with humour and surreal imagery, presents a unique version of Frankenstein. Keeping the theme of reanimation as its starting point, the film takes a different route by becoming an exploration of the human world that is, albeit shrouded by satirical humour, quite scary. The relationship between the creator and the creation and the existential philosophy that it pertains to – some of the most important parts of the novel – once again gets explored in the film, while also focusing on the experiences of the creation as she becomes “civilised,” learning the ways of the world, and coming to identify with it.

Poor Things is set in 19th-century London, known as the Victorian Era, but it is not the historical period that we have encountered in books and movies. Rather, it is a reimagined Victorian Era – an alternative Victorian space – blending the Victorian symbols with modern symbols, concocting the genre known as steampunk.

The film is “vibrant” in every sense of the word. When you come across the adjective “vibrant” in connection with colours, the kind of idea you would get, can be seen in the colour palette of this film. It perfectly complements Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, providing a pleasurable viewing experience. The set design is, in lack of a better term, breathtaking. There were moments in the film that made me pause and look at the frames. The frames are like paintings – Victorian paintings to be precise, resembling the works of painters like Frederic Leighton, William Holman Hunt, John Millais, and William Frith.

The political connotations of using such “beautiful” frames while depicting certain sympathy-demanding scenes might be brought up by some, but I believe that the consistent maintenance of a beautiful frame makes the horrific scenes stand out and leave a deeper impression on the viewer’s mind. The focus is not on beautifying a horrific scene, but rather to evoke a strong response – how Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) reacts to the horrors she sees is more important than the presentation of the horror itself. The use of VFX in the film further gives it a fantastic, impressionistic feel.

The film uses satire and exaggeration to address, not always implicitly but almost explicitly, topics such as normative propriety, the idea of an “independent” woman, feminine sexuality, the side-effects of industrialization and capitalism, among other things. However, doing a casual feminist critique of the film would be too easy. While erstwhile theories like the male gaze could be applied to criticise some aspects of the film, upon larger textual analysis, Lanthimos’ treatment of the subject matter and the film’s genre(s) would allow it to be considered as more feminist than what a general analysis would allow. Also, this is the second popular release of 2023 (the first one being David Fincher’s The Killer) to provide a scathing critique of high-class society and its obsessions.

The casting could not have been any better. Emma Stone has been lauded for her performance ever since the early screenings of the film, and rightfully so. Saying that here, she delivered the best role of her acting career yet, would not be an overstatement. In my personal opinion, she is one of the best actors working in the business today; it is an absolute delight to see her on screen, no matter what role she plays. Willem Dafoe is as magnificent as ever; he adds another stellar performance as Godwin Baxter, immortalising another fictional character in his legendary career spanning over four decades. When I say Dafoe is one of the most underrated and under appreciated actors of all time, I do not say it just for the sake of it. Mark Ruffalo also performs the role of a lifetime; it would definitely seem to his fans that the character Duncan Wedderburn was somehow tailor-made for him.

The make-up artists do a tremendous job – Godwin Baxter’s face is a testimony to that – and the costumes are also equally impeccable. The costumes worn by the characters – their colours and designs – become a reflection of the characters themselves, providing more insights into their psyche. The clothes worn by Bella, for instance, become symbolic not only of her coming becoming civil or growing up as a part of society, but also of her gaining wisdom in unconventional ways.

Being a huge fan of the novel Frankenstein and an admirer of surrealism in cinema, I was delighted to see such a unique interpretation of the text. I am looking forward to reading Gray’s novel now, and extremely excited for Lanthimos’ next project, Kinds of Kindness, which also stars Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe.

Aditya Modak is a film scholar, author, and filmmaker from Tripura.

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