The Wonder movie review: Remarkable Florence Pugh anchors atmospheric slow burn

Entertainment Hollywood

The opening sequence of Sebastian Lelio’s The Wonder begins on a contemporary film set, and the camera pans to reveal the setting of a yarn in the Irish Midlands of the 19th Century. It is Niamh Algar’s voice that guides us through the context of the land ravaged by the Great Famine. “We are nothing without stories, and so we invite you to believe in this one.” It feels rather unnecessary to an extent, as if the filmmaker is deliberately anticipating the impossibility of suspending the belief around this story. Yet, believe in this story we must, as The Wonder, adapted by Emma Donoghue’s titular work, rises above its fourth wall-breaking opening to become a richly atmospheric and ultimately rewarding work. (Also read: Tokyo Vice review: A stylistic, slow burn crime drama that places atmospherics above action)

The opening cuts straight to Florence Pugh’s face, who plays Lib Wright, an English Nurse who is being called to Ireland to verify a miracle. It is 1862. An 11-year old girl called Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy) has been surviving without food for four months. She is to watch the girl for two weeks and report back to the self-appointed committee of men (played by Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and Brian F. O’Byrne). On arrival, Lib finds that a nun named Sister Michael (Josie Walker) has been called too, who would watch her during the night. When she meets the girl for the first time, she says that she is surviving through manna from heaven. Her mother Rosaleen (played by Cassidy’s actual mother Elaine) tells that her daughter doesn’t need to eat. Lib is stunned at the deeply religious lifestyle of the family, her skepticism reflecting ours. She routinely checks on the girl, her suspicion rising as she becomes close. A journalist named William Byrne (Tom Burke) also appears, eager to write a piece on the girl. He has a story too, that will be a connecting thread to the intervention that will ensure later.

No matter how it reveals itself like a thriller to build on this incredulous occurrence, The Wonder is less interested in finding Anna’s truth. Lelio, working her with co-writer Alice Birch and Emma Donoghue, use the central conceit to create a modern take on the divide between fact and faith, dogma and pragmatism that reveals itself like an unsettling slow-burn drama. Pugh is astonishingly controlled as Lib, anchoring our own skepticism as well as processing her own. The Wonder reveals itself firmly through Pugh’s face, as she connects the dots on the basis of her observations. Watch her face as she recoils under the shock of the truth when it reveals itself, and manipulates the condition accordingly. Pugh is aided by the presence of Cassidy as Anna, who gives the breakout performance of the film as a girl caught up under the sheer weight of religious obsession. The tense, haunting score by Matthew Herbert propels the internal distress, whereas cinematographer Ari Wegner’s masterful use of light and fading out makes it look like a horror film in progression.

Although The Wonder begins and ends with a meta-resolution that is persuasive, it might feel a little too frustrating in the middle. Lelio is interested firmly in the predicament of the story, how stories construct themselves in order to move ahead. Most of the action, save for that exquisitely realized last half, remains internal. This is a rousing, delicately political film that cements Lelio as one of the most fearless filmmakers of the generation. It benefits profoundly because of Pugh at the centre, intensely building on to reveal the dangers of convincing ourselves with our own sense of truth and reality.

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