Film reviews: Poor Things | The Boys in the Boat

Based on the Alasdair Gray novel of the same name, Poor Things is a is a work of demented brilliance with a memorable performance from Emma Stone at its heart, writes Alistair Harkness

Poor Things (18) ****

The Boys in the Boat (12A) **

“Readers who want a good story plainly told should go at once to the main part of the book.” So wrote Alasdair Gray in the faux introduction for Poor Things – and so director Yorgos Lanthimos obliges, sort of, with this entertainingly ribald adaptation. Excising the frame stories, the Glasgow setting and everything Scottish bar Willem Dafoe’s wavering accent, the Greek director of cult favourites Dogtooth and The Lobster has used the box office and Oscar-winning success of previous film The Favourite to bring the twisted story at the heart of Gray’s 1992 opus to life in sumptuous, phantasmagorical fashion.

That story revolves around Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), whom we first glimpse from behind leaping from Tower Bridge in full technicolour and next see in monochrome, childlike and inquisitive, bashing away on a piano with her feet. How these two images of Bella connect will soon be revealed, but Lanthimos wastes no time tuning us into the distorted reality of her sheltered existence, frequently deploying fisheye lenses and peephole cameras to bend and contract the ornate surroundings she shares with her guardian Godwin Baxter (Dafoe), his assistant Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) and an array of surgically altered hybrid pets, among them a barking hen and a feathered dog.

Hide Ad

These surgical abominations are the product of Godwin’s experiments. An anatomist by trade, he’s very much a Victor Frankenstein figure, albeit one whose own facial and bodily scarring (he looks like Jigsaw from the Saw movies) elicit some of the sympathy of the monster in Mary Shelley’s original novel, even when the hand he’s played in Bella’s creation – not for nothing does she call him “God” – is gradually revealed.

Frankenstein, was, of course a big influence on Gray, whose novel is a playfully parodic, postmodern twirl through the machinations of Victorian melodrama – or “sham gothic” as a character in one of its nested storylines disparagingly describe its plot, stitched together as it is with elements of Frankenstein, Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Pygmalion and the more lurid work of Edger Allen Poe. Likewise, Lanthimos mixes elements of David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, steampunk and – when the film bursts into colour as Bella later escapes into the world – the technicolour marvels of Powell and Pressburger. And yet it’s also very much in keeping with the cloistered realities of Lanthimos’s own films. As it follows Bella’s sexual awakening and dawning consciousness as a woman unencumbered by the patriarchal restrictions of polite society, the film becomes a twisted story of self-liberation, much like Lanthimos’s breakthrough film Dogtooth.

In this instance, though, sex is the key and the film and its star aren’t shy about making its heroine’s proclivities integral to Bella’s emergence as a force of nature. From the moment she discovers the joy of masturbation by pleasuring herself with an apple (symbolism alert!), she re-writes the rules of sexual propriety, ditching Godwin and Max (to whom she’s become engaged) and fornicating her way across Europe in the company of a lawyer by the name of Duncan Wedderburn, a moustache-twirling cad, hilariously played by Mark Ruffalo, who soon proves no match for her and her penchant for what she delightfully calls “furious jumping.” Indeed, her refusal to kowtow to the mores of polite society soon exposes Wedderburn for the illiberal coward he is and, as her sexual self-education continues unabated with a stint in a Parisian brothel, her knowledge of the world and its injustices and inequalities gradually transforms her into a fully realised person whose quest to find out where she came from leads to a twist partially borrowed from Gray’s novel.

Emma Stone plays Bella Baxter in Yorgos Lanthimos' adaptation of Alasdair Gray's novel Poor Things.Emma Stone plays Bella Baxter in Yorgos Lanthimos' adaptation of Alasdair Gray's novel Poor Things.
Emma Stone plays Bella Baxter in Yorgos Lanthimos' adaptation of Alasdair Gray's novel Poor Things.

Crucially, though, Gray’s novel was also shot through with layers of unreliable narration that revealed the insidious, pathetic nature of the men in Bella’s life. In removing this, the film becomes a more conventional female revenge movie, outlandish on the surface perhaps, but ultimately less impactful. What makes the film work, though, what sustains it beyond the initial shock and awe of Lanthimos’s ostentatious visuals (Holly Waddington’s costume designs deserve special mention), and what sustains it too through Lanthimos’s boring decision to transpose the setting of this most Glaswegian of novels to London, is Stone’s remarkable performance. Her ability to let us experience the world through Bella’s eyes, from monstrous baby to a fully cognisant adult, is a work of demented brilliance.

Is there duller A-list filmmaker than George Clooney these days? Always a pleasure to watch on screen, his many sojourns behind the camera have been less than stellar, the energy and influence of former producing partner Steven Soderbergh having long since dissipated, replaced by a desire to make old-fashioned melodramas about characters pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Films like last year’s insipid heart-tugger The Tender Bar and now The Boys in the Boat, an underdog sports movie so full of cliches you could snooze your way through whole sections and not feel like you’d missed anything.

Based on the true story of the American rowing team who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, it’s a sugary, aw-shucks tale of decent, hard-working blue collar students proving to their Ivy League peers that money is no match for handwork and determination. Calum Turner takes the lead as the poorest of the bunch, narrating the story years later to his grandson, with all the rose-tinted perspective you’d expect from this sort of structure. Joel Edgerton, meanwhile, is the former rower-turned-taciturn-coach who just knows his boys have it in them.