“That’s a story, Kitty. I’m looking for facts.”
This period piece doesn’t open with your usual sweeping shots over vast scenery. Director Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) opens The Wonder on a soundstage—a house not far in the distance. We hear a woman’s voice tell us “the people you are about to meet, the characters, believe in their stories with complete devotion.” Devotion, no doubt plays a huge part of this mysterious film.
The camera pans from the sound stage, and the tower of film equipment, as we are introduced to a quiet woman, lit only by the light of candles as she consumes her dinner. Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) is an English nurse on her way to a village in Ireland in 1862. It’s a tumultuous time for the Irish as they have just come through the Great Famine, which they still blame the English. On the train ride to the village she hardly speaks to anyone around her. Upon Lib’s arrival, she’s brought in front of a panel of men of science and faith, informing her that she’s been there to assist with an 11-year-old girl who hasn’t eaten in four months. A clear impossibility—surely, but why the inclusion of clergy on the panel?
Ana O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy) believes that she is being fed on “mana from heaven.” For those who are unfamiliar with religious rites, this means that Ana is now being fed the Body and Blood of Christ and living on that alone. Now this panel of men—who are ready to take the young girl to The Vatican for canonization—are insisting that Lib, along with a nun (Josie Walker), take watch over Ana in eight-hour shifts and describe this miraculous event in detail. Lib does not believe in stories such as these, and therefore, it is her goal to disprove this theory. But the further she goes into trying to solve Ana’s need for food, Lib falls into tangled webs involving one’s past—even her own.
Pugh is absolutely stellar in this role. While Lib is withdrawn from the people around her, she’s a complicated soul, to say the least. Every issue that the film deals with is seen through the eyes of this character, and Pugh wears it perfectly. Her delivery of each line is powerful, but never overdone. But while Pugh is at one of her best, Cassidy is by far the one who puts it all on the line. She can go from one extreme to another with absolute flawlessness. For an actress at such a young age, I can only say that she is a force to be reckoned with. The outstanding performances from the actors may also be a credit to Lelio’s beautiful direction. He is able to create a world that draws us in from the very beginning.
The source material for The Wonder is based on the book by Emma Donoghue, and if you think you’ve heard that name before, it’s because you probably have. Donoghue wrote the novel The Room, which was later adapted into Room (2015), and gave Brie Larson her Oscar for Best Actress. The common denominator of both films is a simple one—as both deal with confining a person to a single place, while also examining the relationship between a mother and child. The story that unravels before us within the confines of The Wonder, is mysterious and complex with regard to one’s religious faith.
While The Wonder is an achievement, I will say it isn’t for everyone. The pacing of the film is extremely slow, and I can’t blame you for losing interest if a film so heavy in dialogue is not your cup of tea, because that’s what you’re in for. If you can stick with it, this cryptic story will most surely be worth it.
Directed by: Sebastián Lelio
Starring: Florence Pugh, Kila Lord Cassidy, Tom Burke, Ciarán Hinds, Niamh Algar, David Wilmot, Brían F. O’ Byrne, Josie Walker, Elaine Cassidy, and Toby Jones