'The Wonder' Review
November 4, 2022
One could be forgiven for believing that they are watching the wrong film based on the first image within Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder. “We are nothing without stories, so we invite you to believe in this one,” narrates a mysterious whispery voice as we open with a shot of a modern soundstage, a far cry from the mid-19th century Irish countryside where the film takes place. But just as you're about to reach for your remote and back out to the main menu of Netflix, the camera pans to the right, revealing Florence Pugh’s character of widowed English nurse Elizabeth Wright as she’s making her voyage on a boat. And with that simple trick, Lelio has placed us within the shoes (or more accurately, muddy boots) of his main character, as we are reminded that movies, while made through proven science and craftsmanship, are most alluring when they make us suspend our disbelief.
Wright’s journey takes her to a small village in Ireland, a place where religion and science often occupy the same spaces. She’s been summoned by a committee of the town’s highest-ranking elders, including a priest and a doctor (Ciarán Hinds and Toby Jones, respectively), to investigate an unexplainable phenomenon. 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell has gone without food for the past four months, surviving purely on “manna from heaven.” The child has been labeled a miracle by the townsfolk and receives visitors and press coverage from all over the land. Of course, this prolonged fast defies the laws of human anatomy, which is why the committee has summoned Wright and a nun, so that they may watch her all day and night and determine if the child truly is a blessing from above.
Wright fills the role of the skeptic, never once believing (there’s that word again) that Anna and her family are telling the truth. She’s experienced enough despair in her life - including losing her child and husband, and serving during the bloodiest parts of the Crimean War - to doubt the existence, let alone the goodwill, of God. She observes Anna as she goes through her daily routine, one of constant prayer and giving and receiving love within her family, waiting for someone to crack under the pressure and reveal the whole thing as a sham. But Elizabeth’s beliefs begin to waver as the days drudge on and Anna continues to thrive without food, creating a constant battle between the known and the unknown.
Centering his filmography around the themes of personal identity (Disobedience, Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman), Lelio has often found silence to be the best judge of character. Adapting the novel by Emma Donoghue (Room), many of the pivotal scenes are pushed further based on observational glances. Pugh returns (not that she was gone that long) from her movie star escapades in Black Widow and Don’t Worry Darling to deliver a shimmeringly haunting performance. She may look and dress the part of Amy March in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, but her demeanor couldn't be any more different as she brings a steely no-nonsense energy.
Matthew Herbert’s off-kilter score, with its liberal use of percussion and non-period instruments, keeps you entranced toward the mystery, even if the material itself may not always be that consistently interesting. Things pick up steam near the end when the building blocks begin to tumble and desperate choices are made. The means to get there may not have been the most well-executed, but the outcome does provide a nice return on the initial investment.
Through fine work from every facet of its production, The Wonder accomplishes what it sets out to do, telling a story I wholeheartedly believed. Much of what you take away from the film will be under the surface, possibly testing your ideals about the unexplainable within your own life.