Thematically rich and enthralling, Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder is a constantly unraveling mystery around a pair of quietly powerful performances from Florence Pugh and Kila Lord Cassidy
Pugh stars as Lib Wright, a nurse assigned to observe a young peasant girl Anna O’Donnell (Cassidy) in 1862 Ireland. Anna apparently hasn’t eaten for four months, but maintains a healthy and active life, attributing her sustenance to manna from heaven. An advisory board of village elders (including Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, and Brían F. O’Byrne) assigns Lib and nun Sister Ryan (Josie Walker) to watch Anna day and night to see if she is truthful.
As Lib spends increasing more an more time with Anna, she begins to suspect other forces are at work attempting to tell a story. The arrival of a reporter named William (Tom Burke), formerly of the area, complicate matters further when Lib begins to have feelings for him. Lib questions the power of the religious fervor, belief, and sacrifice before nature begins to overpower Anna’s faith.
The film begins and ends with a unique framing device that I won’t spoil here. It frames the entire story with a level of curiosity and context that allows the audience to keep their guard up. The story that follows is then given further suspicion the more the information is divulged.
The idea of a girl lasting for months without food also puts the time frame into context. Who stands to gain from something like this happening? What is the impact to the community and the family if it all turns out to be true? Though these questions are never directly answered, enough evidence is presented where the answers can be gained from the outcomes. Lelio puts the utmost trust in his audience to not be stupid and be able to suss out the answers for themselves.
Pugh is such a modern presence, her role in a period piece may feel out of place, but the character suits her best qualities. She treats Anna with the highest respect, but her first care if for the patient, even if it is at the detriment of others. She is not one to be bought off, and Pugh harnesses that anger without letting it ever boil over. She is measured, calculated, and stellar in the role. Cassidy is the real find in the film. Anna speak mostly in whispers and hushed prayers, but she feels like the only adult in the room of adults. She is humble, meek, and intelligently noble. A late film back-and-forth between Pugh and Cassidy brings the film towards a fiery climax and leaves an indelible impression.
Burke seems to be playing the villain when we first meet him, but he evolves into an unlikely ally of Lib. It’s difficult to actually say there is a villain, as many characters act villainously, but do it for noble reasons or within the realms of reality. Jones expouses some sage wisdom, but has relatively little to do. Elaine Cassidy plays Anna’s mother (and is Kila’s real-life mother) and maintains a haunting middle ground. She doesn’t give much away, but she lives in a ghostly in-between of wanting her daughter saved and wanting her sacrificed. Niamh Algar plays a local woman who plays a vital role in the film, but really has no part in affecting the narrative. Algar is the standout supporting player, despite her lack of role.
Lelio adds just enough notes to keep the audience on their toes. Despite the rather dreary setting of overcast Ireland, the muted colors are well seen and starkly beautiful. The limited setting also provides a level of intimacy necessary in a film like this. The costumes and locations are uncomplicated, as is the reality of the setting. The director does quite a bit without doing too much.
Lelio crafts a superb mystery with The Wonder. Filled with intrigue, a sublime score, and an always wonderful Florence Pugh, the film is a rare treat that shouldn’t be missed.
The Wonder is now playing in select theaters and streams on Netflix on November 16th
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