Logic vs faith. It’s a dance as old as time, and has often made for compelling cinematic entertainment. Sebastián Lelio’s austere but gripping film The Wonder treads in this territory but, in a pair of odd framing sequences, lurches out of 1862 and into the present, revealing the film’s construction and informing us that this movie isn’t real, but the people acting in it believe wholeheartedly everything within. Lelio, the Chilean filmmaker behind such acclaimed films as A Fantastic Woman and Gloria, missteps badly here in such a way that it derails an unbelievable-but-true story about the nature of miracles.
Florence Pugh delivers a tightly-wound performance as Lib Wright, an English nurse sent to a small, devout Irish community where an 11-year-old girl named Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy) is said to have miraculously lived without eating food for months. Surviving on what she calls “manna from Heaven”, Anna has become an attraction for those looking for a sign from God, proof that His light can shie down on such common folk. But not everyone believes it. Lib has been hired, to some great expense she is reminded, to watch the girl and make sure there’s no trickery involved. The all-male council (which includes Toby Jones as the town doctor and Ciaran Hinds as a priest), are largely divided.
As a woman of medical expertise, Lib believes there is a logical explanation for what is happening. A troubled woman with tragedy in her past that could make her someone in need of some saving, she carries herself with an equal measure of spitfire and despair. She’s not the only nurse who has been hired for this task. The other, a nun, is safely not on Lib’s side of the argument. When Lib decides to cut off any shenanigans at the knees by refusing to let Anna see her family, the girl suddenly begins to fade. Has Lib discovered the source of the plot? Or, as one of the council suggests, is Anna’s suddenly deathly turn a response to being deprived the love of those closest to her?
Based on Emma Donoghue’s novel and co-adapted by the author herself, The Wonder captures with great detail the hopelessness of the period. There were a rash of “fasting girl” phenomenons in the 19th century when poverty and famine were rampant, particularly in Irish villages. DP Ari Wegner (of The Power of the Dog) frames the film almost like a horror movie, deep in shadow and bleak, unforgiving surroundings. Period details certainly aren’t the issue here, and Pugh is fantastic as a modern woman grappling with close-minded attitudes of the time as well as her own internal grief. The decision Lib settles on to resolve Anna’s situation involves a skeptical journalist (Tom Burke), and an almost unthinkable crime. More time could’ve been spent exploring the ramifications of Lib’s decision, not just on her but on Anna, who is shockkingly without much agency throughout.
But those bookends are a killer. I’m at a loss to explain why Lelio found them necessary, other than a severe lack of faith in his own material. It’s a shame, because The Wonder is engrossing enough on its own, and the performances committed enough that we don’t need the weird fourth-wall breaking exercise to hammer it home.
The Wonder opens in select theaters on November 2nd, followed by Netflix streaming on November 16th.