Florence Pugh continues to deliver strong performances through a fun and eclectic variety of well chosen roles spanning numerous genres. Her latest is “The Wonder”, a period drama with a tinge of psychological thriller from Chilean director Sebastián Lelio. The film is set in 1862 where Ireland has been stricken by a great and devastating famine. But in a rural Irish village a young girl has inexplicably been able to survive without eating. Some including her family insist it is a miracle from God. Skeptics believe the attention is unwarranted and that it’s all a ruse.
Lelio, who co-wrote the screenplay with Emma Donoghue and Alice Birch, spends a lot of time exploring the tensions between faith and science, more specifically those who prescribe to one side with no regard for the other. Pugh plays an English nurse named Mrs. Elizabeth Wright who is summoned to the remote village by a committee of local dignitaries (Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, and Brían F. O’Byrne). She’s joined there by a nun, Sister Michael (Josie Walker). The committee wants the two to observe a 9-year-old girl named Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy). After 14 days, they are to report back to the committee with their findings, Elizabeth from a medical perspective; Sister Michael through the eyes of faith.
It’s said to have been four months since the seemingly healthy young Anna last ate and the townsfolk are baffled. How can she still be alive? “I don’t need to eat,” she tells Elizabeth in one of their first meetings, “I live on manna from Heaven.” Elizabeth and Sister Michael begin their observation in shifts and are instructed not to confer with each other before reporting back to the committee. Tom Burke pops up playing William Byrne, a reporter from London’s The Daily Telegraph with a special interest in the girl (and later in Elizabeth). He’s there to sniff out a story – is it something scientific that they don’t yet understand or is it something spiritual and supernatural?
The truth slowly comes into focus as Lelio patiently begins putting his pieces together. Many of them come from Anna’s family which includes her mother Rosaleen (Elaine Cassidy), her father Malachy (Caolán Byrne), and her older sister Kitty (a terrific Niamh Algar who’s also the story’s unconventional narrator). Through them we learn the O’Donnell’s are deeply religious and a certain family tragedy still looms over their household. Much the same, Elizabeth has a deeply buried grief of her own which drives her desire to get to the truth.
“The Wonder” provokes some intriguing questions as it moves along, answering them from what seems like a fairly cynical point of view. The final act is a little shaky, but Lelio holds it together, ultimately ending in a place of hope while still making his overarching message abundantly clear. Interestingly, the movie is book-ended by scenes from a warehouse movie set where our narrator speaks to the value and persuasive power of stories while encouraging the audience to engage with them. It’s an interesting idea that doesn’t quiet land the way it intends.
It may have a few shortcomings, but they don’t outshine the many things “The Wonder” does well. Lelio shows an exceptional management of tone and the way he captures and uses his period setting enhances the story in a number of ways. He also knows what he has in Florence Pugh whose standout performance is both thoughtful and haunting. She keeps the movie centered and engaging, even in the few instances where its sputters. “The Wonder” is now streaming on Netflix.
I really ♥ Florence. I have had my eyes on this but am now trying to catch up with Oscar nods. I’ll get to it! Nice review, Keith.
Thanks so much. I think you’ll be impressed by it. As for the Oscar crop. I have them all covered (I think). Interesting batch this year.
Yes, I’ve been reading them. I think Banschees will win several awards…
I loved Banshees. How about you?
I just posted about. Come on over! 😉
Awesome!!! I shall.
Keith I would rate this one higher than you have. I might even give it a 4.5 and would probably have given it a 5 if not for those awkward bookends as you call them. They just don’t fit. Outstanding performances by everyone and the way that notch up the tension is almost unbearable. The director is so skilled with some of the techniques he uses and the cinematography is exquisite.
I was really impressed by the entire look of the movie. It really goes with the tone of the film. And I’m always onboard with Ciarán Hinds. What a terrific actor.
I loved how smart the nurse was. She knew how to get to the truth. Also loved the romance between the two broken people. Hella good movie!
I have this on my Netflix queue as I had hoped to watch it last year but didn’t have the time nor energy but I do want to see this as I love Florence Pugh.
She’s every bit as good as you expect her to be. I watched this last year and I’ve had this review written for some time. I need to get better at getting these reviews up sooner.
Good luck with the Cocaine Bear review.
I really liked this! I didn’t care for the shots of the set that start and end the film, but I really liked the story’s ending.
I agree. The bookends don’t work very well.
A great review. I loved the look and the atmosphere of this film (I like Pugh too), but it was such an exasperating, frustrating watch for me. I kept thinking about Pugh in Lady Macbeth, too, which did not help one bit. I am sure the novel is better than this film turned out to be.
Thanks so much. I would really like to read the novel. I can see it filling in a lot of details that the movie missed or skipped.