It all started when director Yorgos Lanthimos, after reading Alasdair Gray’s whimsical salon novel filled with dark humor, ‘Poor Things’, flew to Scotland to meet this extraordinary individual and buy the film rights from the writer.
But no. It all began much earlier, back in 1818, when the daughter of a philosopher and feminist, the wife of a famous poet, challenging the puritanical society, Mary Shelley wrote the iconic novel ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’ about bringing to life a construct made of dead human parts, which became a horror classic and a benchmark for early science fiction.
In 1992, renowned writer, publicist, artist, art historian, philosopher, and playwright Alasdair Gray published his epistolary novel on English colonialism, inspired by ‘Frankenstein’, weaving his musings into a quirky tale of a resurrected woman who had the brain of her unborn child transplanted into her.
A brief digression: the title is such because in the manuscript, supposedly found and published as this book, every character is sooner or later called either ‘poor’ or ‘unfortunate’.
And now we can return to the famous Greek.
The Idea Behind the Movie and Its Makers
By 2009, Lanthimos knew he wanted to make a film based on Alasdair’s book ‘Poor Things’. He flew to Scotland, met with the writer, and took a walk with him through Glasgow, where Alasdair showed him several strikingly beautiful locations that were later incorporated into the film.
During the shooting of ‘The Favourite’ in 2018, the director began to more actively develop plans for the adaptation, in part because Tony McNamara, the Australian screenwriter who wrote ‘The Favourite’, agreed to take on the plot for the new film. Additionally, Lanthimos formed a close bond with Emma Stone, who actively supported his plans.
It’s no wonder Emma Stone is called a rising star, a lover of experiments, and the most promising actress in Hollywood. She has a bright future ahead and stands every chance of becoming great.
Another digression: Emma Stone dyed her hair black herself for the role and successfully fit into the image the director had in mind. Additionally, the actress also served as a producer for the film.
After the resounding success of ‘The Favourite’, the massive box office collection, and 10 Oscar nominations (though only one was won – for the brilliant Olivia Colman), Yorgos Lanthimos became convinced that his dreams were achievable, and he would be entrusted with a significant budget for a new film.
In February 2021, it was announced that work had begun on the Victorian black comedy ‘Poor Things’.
In March, Willem Dafoe joined the project of his own accord, followed by negotiations with Mark Ruffalo and Rami Yusef, who also secured roles. Dafoe and Yusef attended an undertaker’s school in preparation for filming, while Emma Stone took dance lessons.
The director had to endure a challenging period of so-called development hell, where the project remains in limbo during the creation phase. Moreover, the pandemic made it difficult to work efficiently, but all these challenges were eventually resolved.
- The costume designer chosen was Holly Waddington (‘Lady Macbeth’, TV series ‘The Great’), who brilliantly conveys character development through their clothing, always exquisite and refined.
- Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan (‘The Favourite’, ‘Slow West’, ‘Wuthering Heights’) loves working with unique stories and delights with stunning visuals.
- The music was composed by the remarkable English musician Jerskin Fendrix, and this was his first experience in such a project. He nailed it!
- The staging of the scenes was handled by Shona Heath and James Price, while Claire Campbell was responsible for makeup and hairstyles.
- The film’s editor is another Greek, Yorgos Mavropsaridis, who has edited all of Lanthimos’s films.
Traditional digression: Unfortunately, Alasdair Gray didn’t live to see the film’s production, having passed away in December 2019 in a hospital and bequeathing his body to science.
The shooting took place almost entirely in Hungary from August to December 2021. This was followed by an extended post-production period.
The premiere of the film ‘Poor Things’ took place on September 1, 2023, at the milestone 80th Venice Film Festival, where it was awarded the top prize, the ‘Golden Lion’. We now anticipate another slew of Oscars for this whimsical phantasmagoria, one of the major cinematic events of 2023.
Important note for parents: the film has an R rating (minors must be accompanied by an adult) due to sexual content (which is quite prevalent), nudity, scenes of blood and violence, disturbing images, and occasionally coarse language.
The Plot of the Movie
So, the story kicks off with a bizarre, twisted, and slightly shocking narrative that immediately sets the tone for the entire tale.
In this feminist take on the Frankenstein story, 20 years before the classification of human blood types and at a time when the British House of Commons is debating whether or not to grant married women property rights (leaning towards not granting them), the unorthodox scientist, undertaker, and doctor, Godwin Baxter, performs a miracle.
Together with his friend, the young provincial doctor Max McCandles, he resurrects a woman who took her own life in the late stages of pregnancy due to her husband’s cruelty and conducts an experiment, transplanting the virgin brain of her fetus into her.
Soon, we witness the childlike Bella Baxter rapidly develop, transitioning from a mentally challenged child to an educated and independent lady.
With all the curiosity of an inquisitive child’s mind, Bella explores the world, leveraging the capabilities of a grown and very sensual woman – through physical pleasures, interactions, acquaintances, and adventures. She’s completely devoid of understanding the class and social distinctions that were so stringent at the time, and sees no difference between a dishwasher and a prim aristocrat, accepting every person as they are.
She both shocks and captivates people with her uninhibited nature, her voracious interest in any new experiences, and her relentless bustling activity. Moreover, Bella is a smart woman, not bound by any conventions of decency or stereotypes, and she deeply desires to be a good person.
And another digression: In the book (in the Russian translation) the scientist is named Boglou, and Bella simply calls him ‘Bog’. In the movie, this elegant nuance is retained. The doctor is named Godwin, and his protégé calls him simply: ‘God’.
Bella never experienced naive childhood, didn’t go through teenage problems, didn’t suffer from the challenges of growing her body, didn’t learn to be hypocritical, hide, or comply. However, she has a keen mind, a strong libido, and never harbors illusions.
But what is initially perceived as sweet spontaneity and bright sexuality soon becomes burdensome for the jaded libertine Duncan Vedderburn, who seduced Bella to run away with him on a journey, much to the horror of Godwin and Max, who is eager to marry this incredible creature. As time goes by, Vedderburn begins to wonder – isn’t the devil beside him in the guise of a lovely woman?
But will Bella come home?
And pay attention to the background and secondary characters. They are magnificent.
The film has absolutely nothing to criticize, at least from our perspective. It’s a powerful, captivating story, the brilliance and madness of theatrical grotesque, with excellently chosen actors who played their roles well in the beautiful ambiance of alternative late 19th-century London, filled with surrealism with a slight hint of steampunk.
The narrative doesn’t sag, become convoluted or boring, and the over two hours of the film fly by unnoticed. We definitely give it 9 out of 10 points.
By the way, the film differs from the book in many details. Be sure to try reading the original; many things will be seen in a different light, offering a new batch of solid reflections, of which there will be plenty after watching the film.
Yorgos Lanthimos has gifted us a fantastic film that will undoubtedly remain in the history of world cinema and take its rightful place alongside timeless masterpieces.
As of now, the director is not idle. He is filming another eccentric story, a three-part anthology movie titled “And,” in which Willem Dafoe and Emma Stone will participate. A wonderful collaboration is forming between the unconventional director and talented actors, which we hope will delight us, the audience, for many years to come.