Exquisitely led by Florence Pugh, this 19th century-set tale of faith versus fact is mesmerising, ambitious and sumptuous.
November 03, 2022
"We are nothing without stories, so we invite you to believe in this one." So goes The Wonder's opening narration, as voiced by Niamh Algar (Wrath of Man) and aimed by filmmaker Sebastián Lelio in two directions. For the Chilean writer/director's latest rich and resonant feature about his favourite topic, aka formidable women — see also: Gloria, its English-language remake Gloria Bell, Oscar-winner A Fantastic Woman and Disobedience — he asks his audience to buy into a tale that genuinely is a tale. In bringing Emma Donoghue's (Room) book to the screen, he even shows the thoroughly modern-day studio and its sets where the movie was shot. But trusting in a story is also a task that's given The Wonder's protagonist, Florence Pugh's nurse Lib Wright, who is en route via ship to an Irish Midlands village when this magnetic, haunting and captivating 19th century-set picture initially sees her.
For the second time in as many movies — and in as many months Down Under as well — Pugh's gotta have faith. Playing George Michael would be anachronistic in The Wonder, just as it would've been in Don't Worry Darling's gleaming 1950s-esque supposed suburban dream, but that sentiment is what keeps being asked of the British actor, including in what's also her second fearless performance in consecutive flicks. Here, it's 1862, and 11-year-old Anna O'Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy, Viewpoint) has seemingly subsisted for four months now without eating. Ireland's 1840s famine still casts shadows across the land and its survivors, but this beatific child says she's simply feeding on manna from heaven. Lib's well-paid job is to watch the healthy-seeming girl in her family home, where her mother (A Discovery of Witches' Elaine Cassidy, Kila's actual mum) and father (Caolan Byrne, Nowhere Special) dote, to confirm that she isn't secretly sneaking bites to eat.
Lib is to keep look on in shifts, sharing the gig with a nun (Josie Walker, This Is Going to Hurt). She's also expected to verify a perspective that's already beaming around town, including among the men who hired her, such as the village doctor (Toby Jones, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain) and resident priest (Ciarán Hinds, Belfast). The prevailing notion: that Anna is a miracle, with religious tourism already starting to swell around that idea, and anyone doubting the claim — or pointing out that it could threaten the girl's life and end in tragedy — deemed blasphemous. But arriving with experience with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War behind her, the level-leaded, no-nonsense and also in-mourning Lib isn't one for automatic piety. A local-turned-London journalist (Tom Burke, The Souvenir) keeps asking her for inside information, sharing her determination to eschew unthinking devotion and discover the truth, but the nurse's duty is to Anna's wellbeing no matter the personal cost.
Lelio's opening gambit, the filmmaking version of showing how the sausage is made, isn't merely a piece of gimmickry. It stresses the power of storytelling and the bargain anyone strikes, The Wonder's viewers alike, when we agree to let tales sweep us away — and it couldn't better set the mood for a movie that ruminates thoughtfully and with complexity on the subject. Is life cheapened, threatened or diminished by losing yourself to fiction over fact? In an age of fake news, as Lelio's movie screens in, clearly it can be. Is there far too much at stake when faith and opinion is allowed to trump science, as the world has seen in these pandemic-affected, climate change-ravaged times? The answer there is yes again. Can spinning a narrative be a coping mechanism, a mask for dark woes, and a way to make trauma more bearable and existence itself more hopeful, though? That's another query at the heart of Alice Birch's (Mothering Sunday) script. And, is there a place for genuine make-believe to entertain, sooth and make our days brighter, as literature and cinema endeavours? Naturally, there is.
Keeping that tale-spinning interrogation going — adding to its layers, too — The Wonder takes cues from the 19th-century 'fasting girls' phenomenon. Some children did indeed claim not to need earthly nourishment as the angel-faced Anna does, and so Donoghue's novel, Birch's screenplay and Lelio's direction now use that chapter of history to muse on far more. All three are well-experienced at using fiction to speak to humanity's needs, wants and deepest yearnings, and their efforts simmer with raw potency when combined. The Wonder is patient and pensive, and also a film of immediate weight and emotion. Birch's winning ways with adaptations, and with dialogue loaded with feelings, continue after the also Pugh-starring Lady Macbeth, plus dual Sally Rooney-based TV series Normal People and Conversations with Friends.
When Lady Macbeth cemented Pugh as an on-screen force to be reckoned with only six years ago, it also established the confidence, passion and vigour that's been an essential element of her work since. Those traits shine through again here in a complicated and commanding portrayal, as they have in a stellar list of parts in-between. Once again, Pugh plays challenging with aplomb, as she did so masterfully in The Little Drummer Girl and Little Women. Once more, she wrestles with grief and pain so grippingly that it seems real, as seen in Midsommar. One of the joys of watching Pugh is tracing the lines connecting each entry on her ever-growing resume, and witnessing how an instantly assured and powerful talent keeps building and growing. Another is knowing that nothing — not Marvel movies like Black Widow or wrestling dramedy biopics such as Fighting with My Family, either — ever gets anything but her very best. Even so, seeing her search so unflinchingly for the truth in The Wonder is high among her career standouts.
This is an exquisitely led picture, and cast all-round, including the younger Cassidy as the girl finding meaning, having it ascribed to her and navigating life's burdens through her own story. As it follows Lib attempting to unravel Anna's mysteries, The Wonder is also strikingly shot and staged, looking and feeling earthy, aching, haunting and sumptuous. Indeed, Oscar-nominated Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner serves up painterly lensing of both sweeping landscapes and mesmerisingly lit interiors, doing so again after the also-phenomenal The Power of the Dog. As for Lelio, he keeps showing his knack for making every moment land with movie after movie, and his deft touch with his leads. When he ends The Wonder as it begins, back on that film set after a deeply felt emotional crescendo, he also brings another reminder: that being transported by spellbinding tales like this is fleeting but unforgettable.
The Wonder screens in New Zealand cinemas from November 3, and streams via Netflix from November 16.
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