Leave it to Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek purveyor of oddities, to attempt the supposedly unadaptable POOR THINGS, Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of conflicting points of view, paratextual playfulness, and his trademark commentary on Glaswegian goings-on.
The film follows Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter, a woman reanimated after her death with the brain of an unborn baby, who grows from infancy while in the body of an adult. She learns motor skills and goes through language acquisition, all while being presided over by her creator, Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), whom she affectionately calls God. Before long, she is promised to Max McCandles, Godwin’s assistant, but Bella desires life beyond her Victorian home’s walls as she matures. So begins a globe-trotting adventure, for much of which she is accompanied by lawyer Duncan Wedderburn, an against-type Mark Ruffalo playing a loathsome cad who thinks highly of himself.
Much has been made of Lanthimos’s decision to relocate POOR THINGS to 1800s London, away from author Gray’s home of Glasgow. Speaking to Little White Lies, screenwriter Tony McNamara said: “The book is not from Bella’s perspective, and so I thought it had to be from her perspective.” Lanthimos told the same publication that the novel’s concerns around Scotland felt like a different part of the book. These Scottish anxieties stem from a national pride in the work of Gray, who is seen as the mightiest modern writer in his homeland but whose books have rarely been adapted, especially outside of his country. When introducing the movie at a special preview in Glasgow via video, Lanthimos spoke kindly of trying to keep up with the elderly Gray when the writer excitedly showed him the city. At the same event, Gray’s son gave his blessing. While readers may have reservations over what Lanthimos has and has not included, he was certainly trusted by the writer and his estate.
Rightly so, it turns out. The movie’s condensed vision of POOR THINGS allows Lanthimos to complement Gray’s imagination. Both are singular artists, and here it makes for the feeling of two kindred spirits working towards slightly different goals with a shared palette; in this instance, the story of Bella Baxter, which is Stone’s most accomplished role to date, where she disappears into the character. Her body is rigid to start, nervous and unsure, like Bambi learning to walk. Her monosyllabic communication is deep and without intonation, unaware of social norms that soften or assert speech.
“The movie’s condensed vision of POOR THINGS allows Lanthimos to complement Gray’s imagination. Both are singular artists, and here it makes for the feeling of two kindred spirits working towards slightly different goals with a shared palette…”
This flouting of social norms drives the Lanthimos version of POOR THINGS. He creates playgrounds for Bella to exist within, where her blank slate sense of morality rubs up against society’s rules, exposing their silliness or unjustness with her innocence. She dances without rhythm, calls sex “furious jumping” (wondering why people don’t do it all the time) and takes one look at capitalism before dismissing how unfair it is. The more she lives, the more she develops a sense of right and wrong, often acting in response to the self-interest of the status-conscious Duncan. Ruffalo’s most prominent roles have seen him be charming, safe, and motivated by a sense of justice, so it is a delight to see him play a comically pathetic Lothario. He and Stone have great chemistry, where one subverts the ways of the world while the other exists within it, showing up its ills.
By finding her way in a society not set up for how she perceives it, Bella can be seen as a neurodivergent heroine, more comforting and familiar to some than what, on the surface, is a Frankenstein-like fairytale. She voices, safely through fiction, the absurdities of unspoken expectations which are implicit to some people and a mystery to others. In this regard, she is the inverse of Margot Robbie’s Barbie, whose journey was about understanding what it means to fit into the real world. Bella Baxter asserts herself instead: the world should adapt to her.
“The film’s story of a woman discovering herself and the world is never quite as critical or incisive as its source material, a proudly socialist piece of work. But Bella Baxter’s continued self-liberation is an enjoyable sight…”
As is to be expected from Lanthimos, it is weird. His usual direction for off-kilter line deliveries is present and accounted for, but it is not so weird as to turn people off. Bella and Duncan are fun company, and the regular laughs constantly diffuse most of the tension despite the presumed dangers toward a main character unfamiliar with what’s outside her front door. While the movie could shock mainstream moviegoers with its many sex scenes – which are awkward, hilarious, tragic, but never erotic – it is Lanthimos’s most accessible film. Despite POOR THINGS ‘ adult material, there is none of DOGTOOTH’s danger or THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER’s darkness.
The film’s story of a woman discovering herself and the world is never quite as critical or incisive as its source material, a proudly socialist piece of work. But Bella Baxter’s continued self-liberation is an enjoyable sight, and some of those left-wing origins do pierce this likely Oscar contender’s surface. Its delights are not so much in its daringness as the canvas on which its story is told, shot through trademark disorientating lenses and brought to life through Bella’s luxurious outfits and psychedelic steampunk set design. It is a stunning experience in every sense.