The Wonder, 2022.
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Starring Florence Pugh, Tom Burke, Kíla Lord Cassidy, Niamh Algar, Elaine Cassidy, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Dermot Crowley, David Wilmot, Josie Walker, and Brían F. O’Byrne
In a small Irish village in 1862, 11-year-old Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy) is alleged to have not eaten in four months, yet miraculously remains alive and well. English nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) is sent there with the task of observing Anna to deduce if her claim of ‘surviving on manna from heaven’ is a legitimate miracle or a blasphemous fabrication.
The opening scene of Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder conjures memories of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville. A film set held together by scaffolding in what appears to be a school gymnasium, with an accompanying voiceover from Niamh Algar asking you to believe in what the filmmakers are doing and respect the tale they’re about to tell. What is this? Fleabag in the 1800s?
Once the fog has cleared on what Lelio is trying to say with his masterful film, this approach makes more sense, and is a device only really used to bookend the narrative, but it immediately puts the viewer ill-at-ease, and the remainder of The Wonder does a good enough job of that on its own.
Following this introduction the camera pans around the set and rests on Florence Pugh, thankfully very rarely leaving her focus from thereon in, as we accompany her to a bleak little house atop the windswept Irish moors. It’s here that she is told, and by-proxy the audience, to observe Kíla Lord Cassidy’s faith-famine unfold, warned that “it’s not your job to question it. You are here only to watch”.
That right there is the crux of the movie. Those words and sentiments permeate the entire film. Not questioning anything we’re shown or told is a narrative for not only this story, but the times we live in.
Thankfully for an audience eager to get to the bottom of the mystery they are words that Florence Pugh’s grieving nurse cannot abide by, and so begins a shades of grey morality battle against the oppressive forces of men, religion, and the archaic institute of family, all of whom are willing to allow the greatest of sacrifices for misplaced beliefs or half-truths. It’s not as straightforward as you might expect for the crusading nurse though, because as Toby Jones’ conflicted doctor tells her, “better not to assume”.
Not only is Alice Birch’s script meticulously crafted from Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel, but the same level of care is applied to the filmmaking. The score underlines the unsettling story by interjecting the music with breathy, almost inhuman sounds, while sharp bursts of strings will have you shifting in your seat.
In terms of the visuals, much is made of the vastness of the bleak landscape, accentuating the isolation and claustrophobia for the young girl confined to her room, as well as simply feeling a little bit spooky. The whole endeavour oozes class and it has the air of feeling like a classic from days of yore.
While we’re on the subject of class, the weight of the dilemma driving The Wonder wouldn’t be half as effective if it wasn’t for Florence Pugh. One day we’ll run out of superlatives for just how brilliant she is, but until that time comes you can add that here she is utterly captivating as a woman trying to balance her own grief with that of a family bracing themselves for their own.
Much of what Pugh does, and it was also evident in Don’t Worry Darling, is so effortless and quiet, but manages to resonate with the force of someone giving an Oscar-baiting monologue. There is a pivotal confession scene at the half-way point of the The Wonder, during which she is simply reacting to what her patient is saying, that’ll have your hairs on end.
Pugh isn’t alone in standing out against this wilderness though, because Kíla Lord Cassidy is also pretty incredible as the girl at the heart of this tug-of-war. She plays Anna with a vulnerability that’s sometimes belied by the disconcerting flicker of a smile. It’s a performance that’s intrinsically linked with the overall nature of the film. Who should I trust? Is she really starving herself? It’s not my job to question, only watch.
The Wonder is just that. A gripping gothic morality tale on the power of blind faith. Impeccably acted and quietly moving. Believe.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter