From top to bottom, “Poor Things” is a showcase of Emma Stone’s considerable talents. Her embodiment of Bella — from the physical to the emotional — is one of her greatest achievements as a performer. She takes Bella through an incredible transformation, from a petulant child whose entire world is comprised of the manor in which she has “grown up” to an intelligent and perceptive woman determined to follow her own desires. Stone puts everything she has into this performance, and it’s clear that she has comfort with and confidence in director Yorgos Lanthimos, allowing her to push herself to her absolute limits. The film wouldn’t work without her in the central role, and it’s difficult to think of another actress who could have brought her physicality, sense of humor, and emotional intelligence to the character.
She’s hardly alone in this stellar ensemble cast, however. As the rakish Duncan Wedderburn, Mark Ruffalo has rarely been used better by a director, and “Poor Things” allows him to shine in a way that we haven’t seen in quite some time. His performance subtly evolves throughout the film as a reflection of Bella’s personal growth: he begins as a gentleman of the world responsible for Bella’s sexual awakening, but as Bella becomes more intellectually sophisticated, his foolishness and stifling desire to conform to the status quo are exposed. Ruffalo is given permission to embrace a comedic pompousness that suits him incredibly well.
Likewise, Willem Dafoe as mad scientist-turned-father figure Godwin Baxter is at his best here, bringing a twisted sense of humor to the character’s incredibly dark backstory. He references all of the cruel medical experiments inflicted on him by his father in the name of science so offhandedly that he consistently earns audiences’ laughter. Even his exhalation of a single bubble after eating, a bizarre interpretation of the digestive system resulting from one of his father’s experimental procedures, is molded into one of the film’s most unexpected recurring sight gags.