Florence Pugh has been in the news a lot lately thanks to a split from her long-term boyfriend and the TikTok-ready drama surrounding her newest film, Don’t Worry Darling. While Miss Flo has been skirting past the madness of her reported feud with Olivia Wilde by looking fab and drinking Aperol spritzes, her other new film of 2022 premiered on the fall festival circuit. It didn’t generate the same juicy headlines but it cemented her reputation as one of the best actresses in her age range.
Ireland of the late 1800s is in a state of flux. Still struggling following the forced famine, it’s no wonder so many residents seem hungry for a miracle. Nurse Lib Wright (Pugh) has been sent from England to investigate the seemingly impossible. A young girl claims to have not eaten anything in four months yet seems perfectly healthy. The community, including the girl’s parents, want answers. Is she truly being kept alive by manna from heaven or is this all one big con?
Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue (best known for writing Room), The Wonder opens with a break of the fourth wall. The first shot is of a soundstage, empty of crew but seemingly ready for action. Voiceover informs us that what will follow is a story. Akin to the reveal of artifice that opens The French Lieutenant’s Woman, this lets us know that what we’re about to see is more a fable than reality. Stories are important, the voiceover says, a reason to live. ‘We are nothing without stories. So, we invite you to believe in this one.’ The camera slowly pans towards the set of a ship where Pugh, in-character, is beginning her journey to Ireland.
It’s a striking choice from director Sebastian Lelio, perhaps best-known for the Oscar-winning Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman (and a killer moment from cinematographer Ari Wegner, recently Oscar-nominated for The Power of the Dog.) It adds a quality of the unreal to a film that is presented to us as more traditionally realist than anything truly experimental. The establishment of such a specific theme — the power of stories — also proves somewhat curious. It’s certainly an idea that is present throughout The Wonder. A lot is riding on the veracity of young Anna’s claim. To refute it would be to lie to waste countless people’s faith. Yet the intrusion of our reality, outside of the world of Anna and Lib, makes it seem as though Lelio doesn’t trust the audience to get it.
As much as this is about the communal force of a good story, The Wonder is also focused on an age-old divide between science and faith, reason and belief. Called before a panel of local men, Lib is instructed to provide irrefutable proof of Anna’s circumstances alongside a nun, yet none of them seem all that keen to do so. The local doctor (an underused Toby Jones) seems more concerned with quackery than reality, while the priest (and even more underused Ciaran Hinds) will not accept anything less than his own doctrine. They can barely conceal their disdain for the woman (and an English one at that) whose only self-interest is the welfare of a child. Some seem eager to bank on the potential windfalls of having a possible candidate for sainthood in their area, yet others don’t want to risk not believing. Many of these people, including Anna’s parents, are desperate to have something to hold onto. The scars of what England did to the country are everywhere, even if they’re not directly confronted.
The film never even entertains the notion that Anna is telling the truth. Lib’s skepticism doesn’t waver for a second and neither does that of most of the people around them, regardless of what side of the argument they’re on. This adds a slight shift to the narrative, taking it from one of a debate to something more concerned with how belief as a concept works. Is it enough to believe of does one need something more tangible to encourage it? For Anna, a child raised with intense devotion to Catholicism and daily conversations around salvation and heaven, why would she ever doubt what’s happening to her? As the film slowly reveals what’s actually going on, the conflict is stripped back to show the harsher consequences. In order to show the objective, verifiable truth, Lib’s intervention poses further fears: how long must a child starve before either side caves? Is it worth it?
It will surprise literally nobody that Pugh is excellent in this role. No-nonsense, committed to her job, yet troubled by grief in her own life, Lib is used to putting others before herself. She’s also painfully familiar with being ignored by the powers that be. The opening fourth-wall break could have given Pugh permission to inject some knowing modernity into her performance but there’s none of that her. This is a committed turn as a Victorian-era woman smothered by contemporary restraints. Between Lady Macbeth, Little Women, and The Little Drummer Girl, she’s created a gripping space for herself with performances as steely yet vulnerable women who faced steel walls of opposition at every turn.
It’s a shame that The Wonder seems distrustful of its audience because Pugh does such a great job and everything in-between this framing device is intriguing, beautifully shot, and restrained. In many ways, it feels like an improvement from the novel, which builds up to an agonizing emotional conundrum then has no idea how to properly end it. Here, the process feels more organic, quiet and convincing without giving into the lingering melodrama of the conceit. Perhaps it’s that welcome subtlety that led Lelio to add an introduction telling the audience what themes to look out for. He could have done without it and The Wonder would have easily been one of the best movies at TIFF 2022.
The Wonder screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It is scheduled for limited theatrical release on November 2, before streaming on Netflix on November 16.