Positioned as a feminist twist on Frankenstein and Edward Scissorhands, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things is a bold-looking and expansive experience. Not content to stop there, it also draws from silent films, German Expressionism, and its source material (the novel by Alasdair Gray) with a grand flair. What’s missing—despite all this and more—is the messiness of real life.
To be sure, that’s not from lack of trying. As written by Tony McNamara, Poor Things greets us by way of the garish face of Willem Dafoe’s mad doctor Godwin (God, for short), whose charge, Bella (Emma Stone), is also his creation. I won’t spoil the particulars of her mind here, but it’s clear she’s on a wildly different development arc than that of her contemporaries. As the film’s centre, Stone’s performance is electric throughout, evolving as it does from baby-like stupefaction to bewildering erudition. She remains unmatched by anyone else (least of all Mark Ruffalo), but the strength of her commitment drives the film as Bella discovers herself and the crooked world Lanthimos has gone to great lengths to visualize. This sense of self-actualization is where the film draws its humour, such as it is, and how it eventually loops back around to the home of Dr. Godwin. It also exposes how little Lanthimos is truly willing to risk with his film, even with all its “risqué” material. Though the late-breaking appearance of Christopher Abbott casts a modest shadow on the proceedings, there’s not much else to reckon with here; the film’s moral education feels more like received wisdom.
At his best, Lanthimos poses his films on a ledge, always with the sense that some awful fall is coming. In this, his films are predictable, albeit in the most unsettling of ways. As those past works have marched towards their inevitable conclusions, we can only brace for an impact we don’t want to arrive. With its fairytale structure and happy ending, Poor Things is the exact inverse of this phenomenon, and, well: poorer for it.