Home > Entertainment > Cinema > Oscar Musings – Poor Things

Oscar Musings – Poor Things

Poor Things has a sci-fi exterior but is a tale of a woman’s self-discovery, calling for a more humanly, gentle and liveable world, writes Srivathsan Nadadhur

Poor Things is an outrageous thing of joy and beauty, the kind of fiction that has the power to encapsulate the totality of life through masterly storytelling and sublime acting. It’s a pathbreaking tale of self discovery told through Bella Baxter, a woman who gets another chance at life and is a product of a macabre scientist Godwin Baxter’s obnoxious experiment.

Beneath the mumbo jumbo around the science and the experiment, the film basically taps into an adult’s desire to live life with the joie de vivre of a newborn – pure, unadulterated, inquisitive and an explorer at heart. A 20s something Bella has the mind of a child, but is strangely cut off from the world owing to an ageing scientist’s research interests – he views her as a subject and not a human.

Bella addresses the scientist as God – she’s curious about the outer world, but doesn’t want to disappoint her master. She’s the happiest in the midst of a lab, watching his ‘inhumanly’ experiments unfold. She has no understanding of her femininity until she finds a way of ‘pleasing’ herself and is soon attracted to Godwin’s student Max McCandles, who’s equally baffled and fascinated by her.

The more Godwin and Max try to clip her wings, the farther she flies; Bella almost throws the scientist off a carriage when he denies her an ice cream. Finding a newer way to enslave her permanently, Godwin suggests Max marry Bella and stay in the same house. When a lawyer Duncan, hired to finalise their nuptial agreement, is smitten by Bella, all hell breaks loose. 

The USP of director Yorgos Lanthimos’ film, which has screenplay by Tony McNamara (adapted from Alasdair Gray’s book of the same name), is its shock value. It’s a story we all know of – the monstrosity within mankind and the how the world is not so welcome to the idea of a confident, free-willed woman. When the bitter truths are camouflaged innovatively, it’s more brutal and effective. 

The film speaks of sex, sexuality, joy, oppression, masculinity, socialism and agency – each character embodies a virtue of some form and leaves her something to learn. If Martha and Harry open Bella towards philosophy over a cruise, Toinette, her friend at a brothel, introduces her to socialism, when away from ‘clients.’ A pimp, who gaslights her consistently, involuntarily, teaches her manipulation.

Duncan, the same man who wanted to bed Bella for her adventurous streaks, wants to get rid of her when she turns a prostitute for money. She’s unpredictable and original but the world only wants to ‘own’ her. While touring the world across Lisbon, Alexandria and Paris, you notice the child-like Bella’s transformation into a woman of a firm identity.

When she’s off to visit the ailing Godwin, both he and Max are surprised by her psychological evolution and undeniable warmth. As much as Bella cares for the duo, she calls them ‘monsters’ when she finds a new ‘subject’ in their house, who has fallen prey to their tricks. Poor Things almost settles for a happy ending, until a crooked twist pulls Bella back to her past – the redemption is ridiculously funny.

Poor Things is a plea for a more humanly and liveable world, where everyone gets a chance to evolve, without fighting for it. A poker-faced Emma Stone peels the many layers of Bella through her wacky adventures, utters the most profound of thoughts sans fear and there’s remarkable consistency in the portrayal as her ingenuity as a performer comes to the fore.

Willem Dafoe is intentionally designed like a beast; his appearance does most of the job for him, but his class comes through in the film’s final moments, where you discover the empathetic side of Godwin, a man who’s outgrown his tragic past. Mark Ruffalo, in an exaggerated character representing the hypocrisy of the big-bad world, turns in a compelling performance. Ramy Youssef as a gentle, flawed man willing to change for the better, has a warm screen presence too.

There are fine cameos too – from Suzy Bemba (Toinette) to Jerrod Carmichael (Harry), Christopher Abbot (Alfie Blessington) and Hanna Schygulla (Martha von Kurtzroc). Poor Things may not be an easy film to draw yourself to, the imagery is shocking (to put it mildly), but it is a wild ride worthy of your time. 

(Nominated across 11 categories at the 96th Academy Awards, Poor Things is now streaming on Disney+ Hotstar)

You may also like
Oscar Musings – The Zone of Interest
Oscar Musings – Killers of The Flower Moon
Oscar Musings – The Holdovers
Oscar Musings – Anatomy of a Fall