In Victorian London, medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Yousseff) finds work as an assistant to the brilliant but unorthodox scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Max finds himself enamoured with Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), who is a medical experiment of Godwin's and has been reanimated following her death. As Bella's mind begins to expand and thirst for knowledge and experiences, she sets off on a voyage of discovery and soon finds herself caught in the web of Duncan Weddeburn (Mark Ruffalo), a fiendish rake whose sexual appetites and lust for life matches Bella...
Yorgos Lanthimos' work, from 'The Lobster' through to 'The Killing Of A Sacred Deer' and on to 'Poor Things', has always had a dark and delightful brew of menace and sex. There's always such sharp and alluring beauty, but it's staged and arranged in such unusual ways. In 'Poor Things', we see Emma Stone's character in the throes of sexual ecstasy with Mark Ruffalo's character and many others, yet Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan frame it in such unusual ways. It's almost done in a freak show manner, without any real sense of titillation or eroticism. If anything, it's closer to watching some kind of twisted nature documentary.
That's probably the point, of course, as 'Poor Things' is really a story about the expansion of the human mind and how sensory experiences shape and form it. Emma Stone's character is introduced as a sort of Lady Frankenstein, all blank expression and unformed sentences, but as the movie progresses and her store of knowledge increases by her experiences, we see the personality and the form take shape. Stone's willingness to go to strange places, to meet the energy and the audacity of it all, should come as no surprise. Her performance in 'The Favorite' alongside titans such as Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz demonstrates that Stone is more than capable of holding her own in crowded company. Here however, she's the centre of the story and all else orbits her.
Mark Ruffalo is settling into a wonderful segment of his career, as he plays the shiftless gadabout with a kind of gusto and energy not seen since the likes of Peter Sellers or George Sanders. Willem Dafoe, likewise, may be unrecognisable underneath the prosthetics, but his presence and performance is unmistakable. Kathryn Hunter turns up in the latter half of the story as a Parisian madame, while Ramy Yousseff and Christopher Abbott play competing suitors for Stone's affections. Compared to other works by Lanthimos, 'Poor Things' allows its cast a broader sense of naturalism and avoids the stilted and uncanny performances his work has previously evoked.
It goes without saying that 'Poor Things' is a work of extremes. It's received an increasingly rare 18s certificate by IFCO, and the unashamed sexuality mixed with gross-out body horror was more than enough to earn it. Like much of Yorgos Lanthimos' work, it's liable to elicit strong reactions in its audience - good or bad. It's not done for shock value, though it may shock audiences in parts. 'Poor Things' is unique, and made with clear, artistic intentions. With a cast of able, willing performers, a delightfully decadent production design, and a witty script by Tony McNamara, 'Poor Things' is equal to the sum of its body parts.