The Wonder review: Florence Pugh anchors eerie period drama
A talented cast, a haunting score and unusual direction propel this pulsing thriller about faith and reason.
A mesmerising performance by Florence Pugh anchors Sebastián Lelio's eerie period drama about the dangers of blind faith, which is also a lesson on adapting and searching. The adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel stars Pugh as English nurse Lib, who’s called out to the Irish midlands in the aftermath of the Great Famine to observe 11-year-old Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy) who apparently hasn’t eaten for four months.
While Anna’s parents (Elaine Cassidy and Caolan Byrne) and many of the town’s all-male committee, including the likes of Doctor McBrearty (Toby Jones) and Father Thaddeus (Ciarán Hinds), believe it’s a religious miracle, Lib - a hard believer in medical facts - and journalist Will Byrne (Tom Burke) suspect trickery.
What follows is a slow-burn thriller involving many clashing worldviews - faith and reason, religion and science - as the mystery becomes not so much about discovering what is happening, but why. And it is propelled by Pugh, who does a terrific job of portraying Lib’s growing exasperation as Anna weakens under her watch.
A powerful scene sees Lib frantically stick a feeding tube into Anna’s starving body in a brief loss of control before, unable to go through with it, she yanks it out. Kíla (Elaine Cassidy’s real-life daughter) is brilliant as the innocent and suffering child. It is only when Lib abandons her rational approach and adopts Anna’s version of reality that family secrets finally emerge.
"Are our own beliefs fixed and rigid?" the film asks us. The movie begins on the studio set where The Wonder is being filmed, exposing the film's artifice and drawing our attention towards the power of fiction, as Kitty (Niamh Algar) invites us to believe in the story we are about to see.
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"We are nothing without stories," she says. Later, in character as the family servant, Algar breaks the fourth wall again as Lib asks her whether Anna could be getting food from somewhere. "We all have our stories," she says to the camera.
Lelio's breaks of the fourth wall are at times a little jarring (particularly when the framing device is used at the end), and take us out of reality, but that's the point: this is a bold and thought-provoking drama that forces us to question the validity of our own beliefs.
The rest of the time, Pugh does a fantastic job of immersing us in the story, as does Lelio, who expertly controls the suspense with a haunting score and atmospheric cinematography: breath-taking shots of the Irish moors capture the landscape’s raw beauty (a world away from the greys of his 2017 feature Disobedience). It seems at times to trap Lib, but at others exhilarate and, in a direct contrast to the claustrophobic interiors of Anna's home, beckon as an escape route.
Inspired by real-life cases of 'fasting girls' reported in the Victorian era - women, often prepubescent, who claimed to survive without food for lengthy periods of time - The Wonder will variously be interpreted as everything from a study of our relationship to our bodies, an exploration of the dangers of religious fervour, and a meditation on grief and trauma, both personal and collective in the aftermath of the Great Irish famine.
But ultimately, the film brings us back to the power of fiction, as an optimistic and moving finale asks us to believe in the possibility of a miracle, just not the one we were initially presented with.
The Wonder will be released in select cinemas on Friday 4th November 2022 and on Netflix on Wednesday 16th November 2022. Sign up for Netflix from £6.99 a month. Netflix is also available on Sky Glass and Virgin Media Stream.
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