‘The Wonder’ Film Review: Florence Pugh Stuns as a Woman of Science in a Community of Faith

·6 min read
Netflix

You’ll need to have faith in your core to be swept away by Sebastián Lelio’s lovely and elegiac “The Wonder,” a mournful and textured psychodrama that gently nurses one into hope and spiritual serenity.

But not a religious kind of faith, to be clear: You’ll just need to believe in, or at least gradually come to accept, the power of stories as a means of survival.

A deeply feminine tale of fortitude with heart and teeth, “The Wonder” (making its world premiere at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival) hints at this very suggestion right at the start — perhaps a tad too expressly — and opens on what looks like a contemporary film stage. As the camera pans, it unveils the yarn’s eventual setting, the impoverished Irish Midlands of the 19th Century, haunted by unspeakable grief under the recent shadow of the Great Famine.

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As if to tell a bedtime story, a voiceover softly requests us to consider the complete devotion in which the dwellers of “The Wonder” believe in their own truths. As we’d soon find out, one side would be charged by mathematical facts and modern science; the other, by Catholic faith.

Lib Wright (the astonishing Florence Pugh, in a delicately searing performance) is firmly in science’s corner as a top English Nightingale summoned to a remote Irish village for a well-paying yet mysterious duty. After an arduous journey across seas and sweeping landscapes of mist and sward, all cuddled by the masterful Ari Wegner’s dewy cinematography of muted, buttery watercolors, the nurse faces an all-male panel of the town’s bigwigs, including the likes of Doctor McBrearty (Toby Jones) and landowner John Flynn (Brian F. O’Byrne).

Leading the committee is Ciarán Hinds’ imposing Priest Father Thaddeus, who guides Lib through her two-week assignment. She is hired to watch — and only to watch — the town’s famous 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell (a sensational Kíla Lord Cassidy in a breakthrough role), who hasn’t had any food for four months since her last birthday and yet still shows no signs of weakness or starvation.

Overwhelmed by nosy tourists and insistent journalists, the group simply wants to know whether the girl is a miracle or a fraud. Learning that she’d share shifts with a nun named Sister Michael (Josie Walker), “Why a nun?” inquires the science-minded Lib, understandably rejecting the possibility of divine intervention. “Welcome to Ireland,” is the loaded response she gets. In another scene that contrasts Lib’s contemporary ways against the devout town she dismisses as “backwards,” Lib fires, “I need facts, not stories,” when told that Anna’s last meal was the body of Christ. She indifferently notes down, “wafer.”

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Adapted from “Room” author Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel by Alice Birch, Lelio and Donoghue herself, “The Wonder” builds all its characters and their conflicting dilemmas patiently and compassionately, especially once the bedridden and angelically porcelain Anna enters the tale with her sweet and tranquil demeanor. Donoghue is a master when it comes not only to engaging with resilient feminine headspace, but also surveying a child’s inner world; understanding how little ones cope, adapt, transform and are reborn — that much we know from “Room.”

Meanwhile, Lelio is a maestro of portraying womanly strength and tenacity, as demonstrated through his impressive streak of “Gloria,” “A Fantastic Woman” and “Disobedience,” all telling stories that pit women against the perils of masculine bile, tradition and religion. In that regard, you can’t help but feel that there couldn’t have been a more fitting match between the curiosities of an author and filmmaker, while witnessing the cozy cadence in which Anna and Lib warm up to one another.

Each touched by their own familial grief and trauma, the duo comes with personal and domestic secrets that “The Wonder” skillfully takes its time to disclose, in rooms Lelio and Wegner (“The Power of the Dog”) light with shades of baroque, painterly chiaroscuro. Anna chirps lightly and prays to no end for her deceased brother, insisting that “manna” from heaven ensures her survival. Frustrated by the girl’s stubbornly religious family (the brittle yet resolute Elaine Cassidy is especially outstanding as the mother), Lib on the other hand gives everything she’s got to listening to and comprehending Anna, who often tells her, “You don’t understand us.”

Because she’s convinced that Anna is being fed in secret, Lib treats the situation like a detective case to be cracked. In a frantic and devastating violation of trust one day, she regretfully tries to shove food down the weakening little one’s throat. (During this masterful, tear-jerker of a scene, expect to secretly wish for Lib’s success while desperately wanting her to stop all the same.) Ultimately, nothing works on the fragile girl, who continues to believe in a spiritual kind of nourishment despite her deteriorating health.

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Has Anna been brainwashed? Is she being used as a religious pawn by benefit seekers? It’s not until the persistent journalist Will (Tom Burke) finally breaks Lib and convinces her to collaborate with him that secrets crack wide open. As a person with closer leanings to faith than Lib and also a tragic past, he serves as a logical bridge in the tale; one who finds and connects the missing pieces of the two sides.

Divulging what the pair discovers would betray the serene rhythm that Lelio and his editor Kristina Hetherington (“The Duke”) establish throughout. Just know that the film possibly gains something from reading Donoghue’s book after seeing the screen adaptation. Then again, it perhaps loses a little something, too; you can’t help but feel a smidgen of hurry when Will and Lib fall into each other’s arms in a moment of need and assume a more luxuriously teased chemistry throughout the pages of the book.

Regardless, what a visual, aural and philosophical feat “The Wonder” is as a cinematic examination of empathy and truth, faith and reason, and pride and identity. Every aesthetic decision here complements the film’s searching qualities, from Matthew Herbert’s echoey score of dreamy sounds and pregnant screeches — the screaming sorts you’d perhaps hear in a dream or nature — to frequent use of central framing that emphasizes Lib’s growing isolation and desperation. Delivering a towering performance in a budding career already full of them, Pugh especially leaves a memorable trace as Lib tries to get inside Anna’s head, agitatedly sweeping the muddy earth with her “Lady Macbeth”–adjacent garbs in one moment, quietly sinking into her own demons in the next with a softening façade.

It would be too simplistic to summarize “The Wonder” solely as a lesson on the shortcomings of blind faith and organized religion. A more rewarding engagement is to see it as an exercise on listening with humility. In the end, Lelio earns the powerful close of “The Wonder” with every temperate turn. His film, a career-best, departs like a birdsong, with an optimistic finale as perfect and revelatory as they come.

“The Wonder” opens in select U.S. theaters in November and premieres on Netflix in December.