Film Review: In “Poor Things,” Pathos Gives Way to Pizzazz

By Peter Keough

Poor Things is a film in which the set designers are as much the auteurs as the director, to the detriment of the pathos that is at the heart of Alasdair Gray’s novel.

Poor Things. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. At the AMC Boston Common 19, the Landmark Kendall Square, the Coolidge Corner Theatre, and the suburbs.

A scene featuring Emma Stone in Poor Things. Photo: Searchlight Pictures

In his flamboyant adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s wonderfully weird 1992 novel, Yorgos Lanthimos perhaps wisely drops the book’s metafictional frame, but replaces it with distancing artifices of his own that are distracting and gratuitous. This is a film like Ridley Sott’s Blade Runner (1982) or Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) in which the set designers — in this case Lanthimos regulars James Price and Shona Heath — are as much the auteurs as the director.

The visuals may be gorgeous, enlivened by oodles of optical fancifulness — the switching from black-and-white to color, the anamorphic giddiness, the Steadicam sequences and iris shots. But they tend to reduce the film to a cinematic nosegay. How can one appreciate the uncanny aptness of the premise — a perverse illustration of the notion that the child is mother to the woman — when bizarre, surgically created monstrosities, like a dog with a goose’s head, end up stealing scenes? How can an infernal vision of human misery make an impression when the camera spends more time ogling an ocean liner that combines a steam-punk version of the Titanic with a wedding cake? Maybe the point is that the film itself is a fusion of disparate elements, a whimsical, extravagant chimera of styles and images. If so, then it is to the detriment of the pathos that is at the heart of Poor Things.

So are the hammy, mannered performances, especially Emma Stone in her worst outing to date as Bella, the infantile, polymorphously perverse ward of the brilliant Victorian-era Glaswegian surgeon and Frankenstein-like medical researcher Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Like the serial killer in Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom, “God,” as he’s known familiarly, had as a child suffered through a series of cruel experiments at the hands of his scientist father, leaving him mutilated. He sports a grotesque face that is a cross between Kirk Douglas and a waffle.

Unlike the character in Peeping Tom, however, he bears no resentment. “Do you think my father could have branded me on my genitals with hot irons the way he did if he did not put science and progress first?” he asks, presumably rhetorically. Nor has childhood sadism led to a life of cruelty: he was inspired to further advance the pursuit of knowledge and improve the human condition via experiments that some might consider ungodly.

Stone throws herself without inhibitions into the role, hammering piano keys like a feral kitten, joyously smashing crockery, jamming food into her mouth and spitting it out, stumbling about with a jerky gait like a broken doll, giggling as she tugs at the penis of a corpse on Baxter’s dissection table. She greets the various wonders of the world with the gaze of an imbecile. “What a very pretty retard,” says Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), a student whom Baxter has enlisted to record Bella’s development. “She suffered a brain injury,” explains Baxter. “I repaired it. Her mental age and body are not quite synchronized. Language is coming. She’s progressing at an accelerated pace.” “Wee!” adds Bella, urinating on the floor.

Soon she has progressed from the oral stage to inserting various fruits and vegetables from the dinner table into her nether parts and to exploring McCandles’s ear with her tongue. At this point, Baxter decides that it’s time for Bella to be properly married — to the shy, virginal, and long-suffering McCandles, who has fallen in love with her. Bella is willing, but first she wants to experience more; she runs away to see the world with the predatory, lecherous, impecunious bounder Duncan Wedderburn (overacted with lubricious delight and an erratic accent by Mark Ruffalo).

They begin a tour of the fleshpots of the world, starting with Lisbon, during which Bella develops her language skills and her worldly savvy. She continually expands and refines her appetites for sweets, oysters, champagne, and sex, nearly exhausting her sybaritic consort along the way. But the increasingly besotted and possessive Wedderburn’s hit or miss gambling takes its toll. Bella cuts him loose in Paris, where she eagerly mixes business with pleasure by taking up the world’s oldest profession in a rococo candy-box of a brothel.

But, before Bella finishes her education and returns home, she experiences an epiphany of sorts in Alexandria, one that in the book reduces her to a near mute paroxysm of horror. It is a traumatic experience she is finally able to render in a letter home, a run-on, heartbreaking description of the hell of human suffering and the impotence of any efforts to redeem it. Like in many of Lanthimos’s movies, perhaps most successfully in 2009’s Dogtooth, a crisis occurs when innocence shatters into experience, when the childish illusions are lost, the strictures of the patriarchy crumble, and the real world shivers with dread and possibility. Here it comes across as just another snow-globe-like excursion into a golden glowing marvel of a cityscape with a grotto teeming with the picturesque poor. Bella literally throws money at the intractable problem as Lanthimos’s gaudy effects and dazzling, oneiric diversions roll on.

Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).


  1. tim jackson on December 20, 2023 at 9:39 am

    Lanthimos’ “oodles of optical fancifulness” DeFoe as “a cross between Kirk Douglas and a waffle”
    Ruffalo as a “predatory, lecherous, impecunious bounder overacted with lubricious delight”
    Your review is as much a delight as the film (depending on one’s taste for such “gaudy effects and dazzling, oneiric diversions”_

    • Peter Keough on December 20, 2023 at 11:08 am

      Thanks Tim! Much appreciated since I know you had a better opinion of the film.

  2. Jacqueline Baird on January 24, 2024 at 5:48 pm

    To Date, I Have Seen “POOR THINGS” TWICE… LOVED….PHENOMENALLY, HUMOROUSLY BIZARRE…Superbly Directed, Acted Etc. Etc….An Oscar For EMMA STONE…An Oscar For Director, YORGOS LANTHIMOS…

    • Peter Keough on January 24, 2024 at 9:55 pm

      Saw it twice too. Liked it less the second time.

  3. Gerald Peary on January 28, 2024 at 10:39 am

    I agree with everything you find wrong with this film — maximalism, maximalism — but I somehow found Emma Stone great in the middle of all the mind-numbing chaos.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts