Capsule Review: Poor Things (2023) – A Twisted, Darkly Funny Coming-of-Age Dramedy

Leave it to Yorgos Lanthimos to give us something different and most of all, something twisted in the otherwise familiar coming-of-age story revolving around a young woman named Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) in Poor Things. We first see Bella behaving like a baby and only has a limited vocabulary when she speaks. It turns out that she has the mind of a baby in an adult body and Dr Godwin (Willem Dafoe) is the one taking care of her. She addresses him as “God” and their father-daughter-like relationship has a sense of peculiarity between them.

Then comes Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), one of Dr Godwin’s students being chosen to be his lab assistant. His job? Study Bella’s behaviours and daily routines. It doesn’t take long before Max develops a feeling for her and Dr Godwin encourages them to get married.

However, the arrival of a lawyer named Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) changes everything. He’s the epitome of a rebel who doesn’t care about “polite society” and this piques Bella’s interest and ever-growing curiosity to find out what’s beyond the confines of Dr Godwin’s mansion. So, she takes the opportunity to go on an epic coming-of-age journey with Duncan from London to Lisbon, Alexandria and Paris.

Poor Things is best described as a pitch-black, absurdist take on the classic Frankenstein story, where the scientist is Dr Godwin and his experimental human creature is Bella. The latter’s subsequent sexual awakenings lead to some of the darkly funny moments in the film and how she inadvertently talks dirty with a straight face. Emma Stone’s hilariously deadpan performance is certainly one of her best performances to date and credit also goes to her daring and copious “furious jumping” sex scenes with Mark Ruffalo, who hams it up pretty well as the morally reprehensible Duncan Wedderburn.

The film’s coming-of-age moments are nothing new as we see the gradual transformation from Bella’s naïveté to becoming a sexually emancipated and eventually, a smart and independent woman. And yet, Yorgos Lanthimos’s knack for all things eccentric with a subtle touch of humanistic values, coupled with Stone’s fearless performance is one for the ages.

The acclaimed Greek director, who works on Tony McNamara’s adapted screenplay of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, effectively combines comedy and drama that feels like a wild, anything-goes cinematic ride. You don’t go and watch a Yorgos Lanthimos film expecting something safe and conventional. In Poor Things, he doesn’t shy away from anything controversial, notably the much talked-about sex scenes that may feel gratuitous at the hands of a lesser filmmaker. But in the case of Yorgos Lanthimos, these scenes are justifiable since they reflect Bella’s hunger for self-discovery beyond pleasure and fulfilment.

The film also gets an extra boost from Willem Dafoe’s solid supporting turn as the oddball but sympathetic father figure like Dr Godwin while Ramy Youssef equally deserves mention here as the likable Max McCandles. Lanthimos’s brilliant use of fisheye lenses evokes an unusual sense of alternate reality in the Victorian era. The saturated colours, coupled with Jerskin Fendrix’s off-the-wall score alongside Holly Waddington’s colourful costumes and Shona Heath and James Price’s lavish production design are all top-notch.