Searchlight Pictures has released a teaser for the new Emma Stone movie Poor Things — and unlike many teasers, this trailer deserves the name, featuring only 30 seconds of footage and one line of dialogue (two, if you count an extremely camp “ow” from Mark Ruffalo).
Nonetheless, there’s a lot to intrigue and mystify in this collection of surreal imagery from the mind of director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Favourite). And it’s not just from Lanthimos’ mind. Poor Things is an adaptation of the 1992 novel by the idiosyncratic Scottish author and illustrator Alasdair Gray, who very much had his own set of preoccupations (including sex, socialism, and typesetting — he not only illustrated all his own books but typeset them by hand).
So, as a fan of both Gray and the book, let me explain what you’re seeing here. In fact, the official logline is not a bad place to start:
From filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos and producer Emma Stone comes the incredible tale and fantastical evolution of Bella Baxter (Stone), a young woman brought back to life by the brilliant and unorthodox scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Under Baxter’s protection, Bella is eager to learn. Hungry for the worldliness she is lacking, Bella runs off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a slick and debauched lawyer, on a whirlwind adventure across the continents. Free from the prejudices of her times, Bella grows steadfast in her purpose to stand for equality and liberation.
This is a decent summary, but it omits some of the juicier and funnier details of Gray’s plot and characterization. Let’s break it down by character — with the caveat that Lanthimos and screenwriter Tony McNamara (who co-wrote The Favourite and Stone’s Cruella as well as creating the TV show The Great) may not have wanted, or been able to, replicate all of these on screen.
- Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter is not just a young woman brought back to life — she is the corpse of a young pregnant woman, reanimated with the brain of the baby she was carrying, which then proceeds to develop at an abnormally fast rate. So she’s her own daughter, and mother. She’s curious, intelligent, kind, compassionate, and has a furious appetite for both food and sex (the shape of the window behind her in this set photo is no accident).
- Willem Dafoe’s Godwin Baxter is the brilliant, privately wealthy medical doctor and shut-in who brings Bella to life. In the book, he is an actual giant, with a huge head, weirdly conical hands, and a high-pitched voice that is unbearable to hear — but he’s also kindly and principled. It seems like Lanthimos has opted to reduce him to normal size and express his grotesquerie through facial scarring instead, although that he doesn’t appear in the same shot as any other characters in the trailer.
- Mark Ruffalo’s Duncan Wedderburn is a caddish lawyer and inveterate gambler who steals Bella away on a long European trip, thinking to take advantage of the comely, innocent young woman. But he gets a surprise when her appetites exceed his and he can’t keep up.
- Ramy Youssef’s Max McCandless is presumably the film’s version of Archibald McCandless, the narrator of the book. He’s Godwin’s friend and colleague, a good doctor from humble origins, and also a bit of a bore, who gets engaged to Bella before she runs away with Wedderburn.
- Jerrod Carmichael’s Harry Astley is an English gentleman Bella meets on her travels, whose cynical, imperialist worldview is challenged by her compassion. He falls in love with her, like every other man in the story.
The movie looks heavily visually stylized, almost fantastical, while the book takes place in a semi-realistic Victorian world with a few Gothic flourishes. The opening shots of the trailer nod to the Frankenstein story, which Gray riffed on for his book. Otherwise, the film seems to focus on Bella and Wedderburn’s steamship tour. In the book, she has other adventures, including a spell in a Parisian brothel, and a lot of time is spent with Godwin and McCandless (whom Bella calls “Candle”) moping around in Glasgow in her absence.
It remains to be seen how much of the book Lanthimos and McNamara will bring to the screen, but if you’re at all curious, I can’t recommend it enough — like all Alasdair Gray, it’s hilarious, moving, impassioned, and gloriously weird.