Dir: Sebastián Lelio. Starring: Florence Pugh, Tom Burke, Kíla Lord Cassidy, Elaine Cassidy, Caolán Byrne, Niamh Algar, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds. 15, 108 minutes.
Watching The Wonder on Netflix, you’ll think you’ve clicked on the wrong film. The beguiling period drama starring Florence Pugh opens not in Ireland’s boglands as promised by the trailer, but in the harsh light of a film studio. A disembodied voice (Niamh Algar’s) will reassure you that this is indeed The Wonder. The voice continues: “The people you are about to meet, the characters, believe in their stories with complete devotion. We are nothing without stories. So we invite you to believe in this one.”
It’s an odd, and already critically divisive, beginning. The film sees director Sebastián Lelio and screenwriter Alice Birch (known for her work on Succession and Normal People) take on Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel of the same name. It should be said that nothing about Donoghue’s book particularly invites this narrative framework (the film ends back at the same sterile place) but Leilo and Birch have latched on to it, nonetheless. The reasons behind their peculiar choice reveal themselves slowly but persuasively.
The camera, eventually, closes in on a dark and dingy passenger ship, in which sits Pugh’s Lib Wright. The year is 1862. Lib is an English nurse called across the sea to Ireland, to verify a miracle. An 11-year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy), has lived without food for four months. Lib is there only to report what she sees and hears, not to offer her diagnosis. The debate of faith versus science is to be left to the men of the village (played in part by Toby Jones, Brian F O’Byrne, and Ciarán Hinds). Has Anna been nurtured by magnetism? Photosynthesis? Molecules of scent? Or, as she claims, “manna from heaven”?
The truth of Anna’s self-sustaining starvation means little to the story. Neither is it all that hard to guess. The Wonder, instead, relies on the enigmatic discomfort of being drawn into another person’s darkest secret. As Lib becomes closer to the girl, her suspicions grow. And this is a land so scarred by famine that even the charming journalist (Tom Burke) who turns up to write about Anna, hides a mournful tether to the place. Cinematographer Ari Wegner frames Pugh like she’s a mouse crawling in the rafters, small and easily consumed by the shadows. Meanwhile, Matthew Herbert’s score, jarringly but effectively modern in tone, rumbles away beneath like a digestive system of levers and gears.
The film may take a stand against religious hypocrisy – and particularly the carelessness with which lives are supplanted by agendas – but it does so without vilifying those who see faith as a tool for survival. A veteran of the Crimean War, Lib considers it a great privilege to spend time with those on their deathbeds. “They talk,” she says. “They tell their stories.”
Pugh is very much at home in this kind of role, but it’s no less arresting in its familiarity. There’s a certain steadfastness there, a sense of internal resolution, that not only allowed her to walk away from the hubbub around Don’t Worry Darling entirely untouched, but let her skip through the Marvel Cinematic Universe as its newest Black Widow without a care in the world. Lib, despite assiduously devoting herself to the factual world of medicine, has her own nightly ritual to assuage the grief of a lost child. Every evening, she pricks her finger, like manmade stigmata, and sinks into an opium-induced blackout. The Wonder’s strange opening then begins to make sense; it is a reminder that the only truths to exist are the ones which we construct for ourselves.
‘The Wonder’ is streaming on Netflix now