The legitimacy of miracles is front in center in Sebastián Lelio’s eerie period piece, The Wonder. Some people argue that miracles come in all forms of signs in life, indicating that there might be more than to this life once it has concluded. Others believe there is a logical explanation to these events, leaving out any divine intervention. This is the age old battle of religion versus science or medicine or common sense. The question then becomes, how hard does someone’s belief on either side of the argument go before they faith in the argument breaks? In the film, it is the test of an English nurse care of her young patient that brings this ancient rivalry to the surface in this taut, grimy mystery.
Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) is brought to a small Irish town in the mid-1800s, to tend to a little girl name Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy). The town counsel (composed of veteran actors Toby Jones, Ciarán Hines, Dermot Crowley and more) have brought her to their shores because they think they have a miracle on their hands. Since her ninth birthday, Anna has been fasting for months, and yet hasn’t shown any signs of her health deteriorating. In a strong, faith based community, the counsel, alongside Anna’s family, want to make sure they know what they have on their hands before declaring anything as a miracle, or act of god. Lib finds this whole position to be medically impossible, given that fact that we all need nourishment to survive this world. Therefore, she becomes the perfect selection to watch over Anna and find out what the truth is behind her miraculous state of being.
Taking on this task as a way of escaping her own troubled past, Lib sinks herself into the care of Anna. These moments of early introductions and understandings of who the patient and caregiver are to one another highlights the strong chemistry between Pugh and Cassidy. In order to understand why Anna won’t eat, Lib has to isolate her from her family, allow no contact between Anna and her relatives. In doing this, she becomes close to the girl, connecting to Anna in the way she would’ve to the child she lost shortly before she took this assignment. But in doing this, Anna becomes weaker, and Lib starts to slowly put the pieces together of how and why Anna is not eating, thus struggling to stay alive.
Once Lib has made her conclusion, the real fight becomes to convince the counsel and Anna’s family of findings. Then the real battle begins, as the power of the men of the counsel waive off Lib’s medical option for the vanity of being right about this miracle that has consumed this town. The community has taken a curiosity to Anna over these four mounts, with people coming to her family’s house just to get a glimpse of the girl who won’t eat. In doing so, it becomes also a minor donation line to the church. The collective acceptances leave Lib with only one person she can trust, another out of towner in William Byrne (Tom Burke), a journalist sent to write an article about Anna. At first their relationship is distant, but over time, they realize they need each other, both to successfully complete their jobs, but romantically as well.
But there is only so much William can do and say to Lib, as her frustration only grows as the events of The Wonder play out. In this tension and angst with everything around her, we see Pugh shine. In one of her finest performances yet, Pugh allows Lib to blossom out of her cold, distant shell, and shed off the baggage of her past. By doing this, she becomes invest in more than just her medical responsibilities and fights to save the life of this little girl that is being used by the overbearing power of men and her family’s religion fanaticism.
This isn’t Lelio’s first go round when it comes to the overwhelming issues with religion and the toll it has on his female characters, just look to 2018’s Disobedience. While it does fell like familiar waters he is swimming in, the Chilean director takes a subtler approach in displaying the irritation with the strangle hold faith has on people. In his confident direction lies also the biggest strength of The Wonder, which is the striking cinematography by Ari Wegner. The contrast from the outside world of the Irish hills being vast and vivid is perfectly balanced with the darkness, smutty interiors of Anna’s house and locations within the town. With this visual presentation, Lelio and Wagner provide the audience with the two options Lib and Anna can live in, and ultimately, the place they need to escape from. Throw in an effective yet underused score by Matthew Herbert, and The Wonder becomes a technical feast that balances out the narrative familiarity.
With a confident team behind the camera, and the strong performance by Florence Pugh, The Wonder is an effective period thriller that, while not reinventing the wheel of the genre, compels you from the start and leaves you invested till the end.
This review is from the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. Netflix will release The Wonder in theaters this November then streaming in December.