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25th November 2022

The Wonder review: Florence Pugh works wonders in gritty period drama

Florence Pugh is miraculous as she tackles faith and science head-on in Sebastian Lelio’s dark Netflix period drama
Photo: Diego Sideburns @ Flickr

Trailers and posters for The Wonder prepare you for a broody period drama, set in 19th century rural Ireland. The film opens with a film set, cluttered with filming equipment and modern technology. The camera slowly pans onto our protagonist, sitting in a set made to be a ship cabin. We’re reminded that the film is just that – a film. In this compelling (and somewhat pretentious) opening, The Wonder immediately establishes its central concern: the boundaries between truth and unquestioning belief.

Based upon the 2016 novel by Emma Donoghue, The Wonder is the product of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio (Gloria, A Fantastic Woman), and British screenwriter Alice Birch (Normal People, Lady Macbeth). We follow Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), an English nurse sent to rural Ireland, a landscape reeling after the Great Famine. Her purpose is to observe Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), a pious 11 year-old girl who has not eaten in four months. This supposed ‘miracle’ has made her a talisman for the village and visitors. Upon arrival, outsider Lib is immediately confronted with questions of faith and fact.

Through the bickering men of the village council, the conflict between science and religion emerges. Is Anna really living off “manna from Heaven”? Is she absorbing energy from the sun? Or is it all a hoax?

While keeping watch over the seemingly healthy girl, Lib’s own past trauma bubbles under the surface, manifesting itself in opium addiction. Along with a rugged, enigmatic journalist (Tom Burke), Lib remains unconvinced about the miracle. As she tries to uncover the truth, dark secrets slowly start to reveal themselves. The film poses bold questions about the hypocrisy of religion, and how people are sacrificed for underlying motivations. Lib’s previous scepticism turns into a desperate attempt to save Anna’s life from the unmoving forces of religion and conservatism that govern the village people.

The film is anchored by its sensational central performances, particularly by Florence Pugh. After escaping unscathed from the notorious Don’t Worry Darling drama, Pugh is in her element here. Her presence balances being stern yet sympathetic, sensual yet composed, and broken yet determined. Her talents shouldn’t, however, overshadow newcomer Kíla Lord Cassidy who gives Anna a hypnotic intensity that haunts each scene.

The sweeping vistas of rural Ireland depict a land that is hollow and hungry, almost swallowing up the characters as they scamper around the boglands. Matthew Herbert’s score sustains this atmosphere, droning ominously throughout.

Thus, it’s a shame that the film’s opening and closing shots forego immersion in favour of style. It’s a choice that somehow manages to be pretentious and yet surface-level, doing a disservice to the careful complexity of the film that it frames.

The Wonder tackles its heavy themes slowly and methodically, but for some, it may buckle under the weight of its agenda. While not everyone’s cup of tea, it’s a perfect fusion of psychological thriller, mystery, and period drama. The Wonder leaves us hungrily anticipating what Lelio and Pugh will do next.

4/5.

 

The Wonder is streaming now on Netflix.


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