Two artists who delight in the bizarre and profane, Yiorgos Lanthimos seems an appropriate fit for the challenge of adapting Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things.
Riffing on Frankenstein, both film and novel follow Victorian surgeon Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) and his latest frightful experiment. Inserting a baby’s brain into a woman’s corpse, Godwin creates the extraordinary Bella Baxter (Emma Stone). Bella’s unique biology endows her with a liberating absence of inhibition, neither knowing or caring to adopt the etiquette expected of her. Godwin shelters Bella from the outside world, leaving her naive to societal ills like poverty and patriarchy. Bella encounters both when she absconds to Europe with the roguish playboy Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), reacting to the former with a socialist sense of injustice and the latter with an anthropological curiosity.
Bella’s hedonistic voyage takes her to Lisbon, Alexandria, and Paris, while London replaces the novel’s Glasgow base. This unfortunate choice brings to mind an oft-quoted passage from Gray’s Lanark about how not even Glasgow’s inhabitants can live in the city imaginatively if it hasn’t been visited in paintings, novels, history books, and films.
Nevertheless, Poor Things impresses with its exaggerated mise-en-scène and Stone’s committed lead performance. The sets and costumes are baroque and textured, Bella rarely seen without ruffles or puff sleeves. An indulgent colour palette of buttery yellows and inky blues reflects how Bella indulges her every craving, be it for sex or pastel de nata. Stone embodies Bella’s physical and verbal tics and Lanthimos’ penchant for stilted dialogue works well with Bella’s idiosyncratic use of language.
Fans of the novel will likely be left wanting, particularly by an abrupt ending that omits information essential to both Bella’s character development and our understanding of her dynamic with the men in her life. The ending is just one moment where Lanthimos fails to uphold Gray’s political vision: lip service is paid to socialist meetings Bella attends but the film grossly undersells the transformative effect they have on her.
Lanthimos adds details that are in step with his flair for the grotesque but end up serving as own goals, merely highlighting the gulf between Gray’s endearingly bonkers imagination and everyone else’s. By delivering a (mostly) faithful treatment of such outlandish source material, Lanthimos leaves himself with little room to manoeuvre. Entertaining but not entirely satisfying, Lanthimos’ Poor Things captures the novel’s filthiness and funniness but lacks its radical beating heart.
Poor Things is in cinemas from 12th January