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Review: ‘Poor Things’ is a Spellbinding and Offbeat Feminist Fairy Tale with a Frankenstein Twist

December 6, 2023Ben MK

2023 has proven to be another blockbuster year for female empowerment. And while the multiplexes might still be feeling the void left behind by Barbie, moviegoers can always find solace in the fact that films like The Marvels and Furiosa will continue to rise up to take its place. Whether it's a beloved pop culture icon, an all-woman squad of superheroes, or a no-nonsense action heroine, Hollywood has conditioned audiences to come to expect a certain style of storytelling when it comes to feminist-themed movies. With Poor Things, however, director Yorgos Lanthimos intends out to upend those expectations, in this offbeat tale about a mad scientist and his creation.

Set in a retro-futuristic vision of 19th-century London, the story follows Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a mysterious and strangely captivating young woman whose unorthodox behavior and childlike demeanor belies the life she used to have. Once the long-suffering wife of a cruel husband who threw herself and her unborn baby off a bridge in an attempted suicide, Bella was found by a talented — but horribly disfigured — surgeon named Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), who brought her back to his laboratory and gave her a second chance at life. What no one knows, though, is that Godwin did so not by simply reviving her, but by removing the baby from her womb and implanting its brain into Bella's skull. So while Bella may, for all intents and purposes, physically resemble her old self, she retains none of her former memories or personality, making her a completely blank canvas for Godwin to use to paint his groundbreaking and totally experimental scientific masterpiece on.

Effectively a prisoner in Godwin's home, Bella is both blessed and cursed to know nothing of the outside world, instead spending most of her time doing the very same things a toddler would do, such as learning to walk and talk. However, when Godwin hires an eager young medical student named Max McCandles (Ramy Yousef) to be his personal assistant, it sets into motion a series of events that will see Bella embarking on a wondrous journey of self-discovery. From falling for a notorious cad named Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) and running away with him to Lisbon, to taking up residence in a Paris brothel, where she'll become intimately familiar with the world's oldest profession, Bella is soon introduced to pleasure and tragedy. But when she returns home to England, will Godwin recognize in her the innocent soul that walked out his door mere months earlier?

Based on the 1992 novel by Scottish author Alasdair Gray, the result plays like the twisted offspring of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, as screenwriter Tony McNamara thrusts Bella into one bizarre, character-building scenario after another, with each delightfully disturbing episode contributing to her eventual transformation into a fully-fledged individual capable of thinking for herself and forming her own unique opinions. Ultimately, though, it's Stone's tragicomic and totally award-worthy portrayal of the film's leading lady that helps Poor Things and its powerful themes of sexual liberation and gender equality resonate so strongly, as the 35-year-old actress delivers what may well be the most fearless performance of her career.

Suffice to say, fans of Lanthimos' previous movies, such as The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Favourite, will find no shortage of quirky, unsettling and downright laugh-out-loud moments, with Stone easily earning the crown for the film's most mesmerizing scene-stealer, followed closely by Ruffalo and Dafoe. In the end, however, it's Poor Things' feminist message that will stay with viewers the most. For while its title might imply something pitiable, audiences will undoubtedly leave the theater all the richer.

Poor Things releases December 15th, 2023 from Searchlight Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of R for strong and pervasive sexual content, graphic nudity, disturbing material, gore, and language. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 21 min.

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