Poor Things: A sharp, raunchy, and powerful Frankenstein retelling

"Poor Things" UK Gala Screening - Arrivals
"Poor Things" UK Gala Screening - Arrivals / Karwai Tang/GettyImages

Don't be surprised if Poor Things, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, with a script by Tony McNamara and Alasdair Gray, earns a lot of Oscar buzz. It's warranted. The performances all around, especially by Emma Stone as the Frankenstein's Monster-like protagonist Bella Baxter, are outstanding. The set designs and colors pop and dazzle. Poor Things is one of the most inventive takes we've had on Frankenstein in a year that's already had two creative adaptations of Mary Shelley's story, that being Birth/Rebirth and The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster. Like Birth/Rebirth, Poor Things puts a sharp feminist twist on the Frankenstein story, making the Monster a female, who tries to understand the world while fighting against the men who want to control her.

Willem Dafoe stars alongside Stone as Dr. Godwin Baxter, the scientist who brought Bella Baxter to life. More specifically, he found her in a river after she jumped from a bridge and committed suicide, with a baby inside of her. He used the baby's brain and placed it inside of her skull during the reanimation process. Stone does a fantastic job in the first third of the movie essentially playing a grown woman with an infant's mentality. When she doesn't get her way, she smashes dishes. She spits out her food. In happier moods, she twirls and dances around the room. Again, Stone really deserves an Oscar nomination for this role. I tend to like Dafoe in whatever he's in, and here, he gives the familiar scientist role nuance. Yes, he has the ambition of Dr. Frankenstein, but unlike Shelley's archetype, he doesn't shun his creation. Rather, he loves her, to the point he keeps her sheltered, locked away at home.

Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe
"Poor Things" UK Gala Screening - Arrivals / Karwai Tang/GettyImages

This becomes more complicated when Bella meets budding scientist/student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), who she agrees to marry, but not before seeing the world first with the cunning ladies man Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). While I've always liked Ruffalo, I never knew he had such range. In this film, he's absolutely hilarious at times and also a villain who, like other men, wants to lock Bella away and keep her all to himself, even if she travels with him all over Europe. He's especially mortified and enraged when she engages in sex work after they're out of money in Paris.

Aspects of Poor Things feel like a classic Universal Monsters movie, especially early in the film, much of which is shot in black and white and set in Dr. Baxter's castle and various laboratories. The Universal Monsters and Hammer horror influences are very clear. But when Bella sees the world, the set designs are absolutely stunning and colorful, a mix of a Victorian, Gothic aesthetic and some bizarre futuristic world with strange cabs that sort of fly. It's hard to describe unless you've seen the film. The costumes and make-up are applause-worthy, too, from the lavish and strange gowns Bella wears, to, well, Dafoe's face, which looks like it's been carved with dozens of cadavers. You come to learn that his character's father was abusive towards him all in the name of science. He's viewed as monstrous by the small village, again harkening back to Shelley's novel and the themes of Otherness.

First and foremost, however, this is really Bella's story and Stone carries the show. Watching her character come to understand the world, everything from sex (and lots and lots of it), to good food, to evil, war, and poverty, is quite a narrative arc that's a delight to watch, a marvelous journey. I suspect this movie may be too weird for some. Lanthimos' movies are indeed a David Lynch-sort of strange. Still, for those who want a visual feast and a new take on a classic story, I can't recommend Poor Things enough. It has absolutely gorgeous visuals, a widely creative premise with something to say about women's autonomy and agency, and stellar performances, from Stone specially.

Poor Things is currently playing in theaters.

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