Why Poor Things should win the best picture Oscar

<span>High-concept and hallucinatory … Emma Stone in a scene from Poor Things.</span><span>Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy</span>
High-concept and hallucinatory … Emma Stone in a scene from Poor Things.Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

“You did not see me working on myself to get HAPPINESS did you?”

“What of the TONGUE-PLAY? Is that not happening?”


Emma Stone’s delivery of the many outrageous laugh lines in Yorgos Lanthimos’s brilliant and scabrous Poor Things is cause enough to hand over the best picture Oscar right away.

But there is also the deliciously offensive Frankensteinian high concept, the hallucinatory cinematography switching between colour and monochrome, the inspired production design and costumes, the insinuating musical score which appears at first to mimic our heroine’s childish thumping on the piano, then surge and swirl alongside her increasing intelligence and naive sexual confidence. And of course there’s the propulsive story itself, which rockets along like a steampunk steamtrain.

Related: Oscars nominations 2024: the full list

For all these reasons and more, I want to see producer Ed Guiney take to the stage and give the climactic speech when the best picture Oscar is announced, with his co-producers Daniel Battsek, Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone herself lining up behind him.

Poor Things is the quite extraordinary melodrama of a young woman, played by Stone, apparently called Victoria Blessington and a member of polite society in this fantasy version of the Victorian age. She attempts to take her own life by throwing herself in the Thames. Lanthimos shoots this grisly dreamlike moment from behind her as she drifts downwards and away from us to the water, thus withholding a key fact. (I have incidentally not entirely given up on Stone starring in a Poor Things prequel, giving us her adult story until this moment.)

But her almost-cold body is secretly retrieved and experimented upon by troubled anatomist Godwin Baxter, played with absolute conviction by Willem Dafoe, who brings her back to life in a bizarre infantile state with a technique too awful to be revealed right away, renames her Bella Baxter and keeps her as his ward or pet or daughter in his house. Her beauty and innocence excites the protective gallantry of Baxter’s assistant McCandles (an excellent performance from Ramy Youssef), who falls in love with Bella, but her wayward behaviour earns her the disgust of Baxter’s housekeeper – a hilarious performance from Vicki Pepperdine, which we should be talking about more. But just when their domestic menage looks like settling into some creepy semblance of normality, Bella runs away with a bounder called Duncan Wedderburn: a wonderfully caddish turn from Mark Ruffalo, and so begins her Alice-through-the-looking-glass voyage around the globe and into her own frank and unashamed sexuality.

Tony McNamara’s adaptation of the original Alasdair Gray novel is masterly, as are Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, Shona Heath and James Heath’s production designs, Holly Waddington’s costumes, Jerskin Fendrix’s delirious score and so much else. Emma Stone’s absolutely forthright and courageous performance carries the movie effortlessly along its two hours-plus running time, and her distinctive beauty and mesmeric eyes give her that otherworldly look. (Awards season fans may incidentally remember the 2015 Golden Globes night when presenter Tina Fey and Amy Poehler rather cruelly compared Emma Stone to the thyroid-eyed kids from Margaret Keane’s kitschy paintings in Tim Burton’s true-life film Big Eyes: “It’s cute but it’s creepy ...” Emma herself took it like a good sport. At any rate, Lanthimos has found a way to harness her unearthly beauty in this film.)

Since Poor Things was released, the critical discourse has got around to challenging it on the grounds that it is in fact a male fantasy: exploitative and even paedophilic.

My own view is that this condemnation – like the word “fetch” in Mean Girls – never caught on. Poor Things is almost an object lesson in how a real artwork rises uncancellably above political taste or social media scolding. Its transgressive energy is partly about fracturing those very strictures and going far beyond them. It is also from a European director who emerged outside the studio squeamishness of Anglo-Hollywood and it is also based on a literary source from an author whose prestige was built up before publishers learned to be terrified of the “problematic”. (The latter point is also true of The Zone Of Interest.) That said, I must now concede that Viv Groskop made a shrewd prosecution case in this paper by pointing out that for all the importance attached to anatomical detail and explicit sex, none of the guys in charge here thought to wonder if Bella could menstruate or get pregnant.

Well, with production co-designer Shona Heath, costume designer Holly Waddington and indeed producer-star Emma Stone, there are powerful female gazes at work.

Poor Things is the one movie on the best picture nomination list that works fully and completely on its own terms and which genuinely takes risks: it is shocking and exciting and funny and Stone is magnificent.