World premiering at Telluride and to be distributed by Netflix this fall, The Wonder scintillates for a number of reasons. For one thing, its study of religious fanaticism and sexual abuse touches a nerve in today’s culture. It also represents perhaps the finest achievement to date of Chilean director Sebastian Lelio, who won an Oscar for A Fantastic Woman and also helmed such well received movies as Gloria (and its American remake, Gloria Bell) and Disobedience. But the film will be remembered primarily for the monumental performance by Florence Pugh, who transports audiences on her character’s journey to save the life of a child victimized by 19th century society.
In assigning credit, however, one should not overlook the contribution of novelist Emma Donoghue, who first created the story and also wrote the book Room, another study of women and children abused and tormented. (The film version earned an Oscar for actress Brie Larson.) Donoghue wrote the screenplay for The Wonder, along with Lelio and Alice Birch.
The Bottom Line
An illuminating study of dark prejudices.
The story takes place in 1862, when an English nurse, Lib Wright (Pugh), comes to a small town in famine-ravaged Ireland to investigate a strange occurrence on a desolate homestead. The family’s young daughter, Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy), has been fasting for a few months with no apparent ill effects. The girl’s family and the elders of the community want to insure the girl’s safety and also verify if this might be a bona fide Christian miracle. Lib is skeptical of any supernatural interpretation; her only desire is to help the child, and she runs up against a community of elders who distrust her medical expertise.
It would probably be advisable not to give away too much more of the movie’s plot. Press materials at Telluride described it as a Gothic suspense thriller, which does not really do the movie justice; it is more of a commentary on the dangerous extremes of religious obsession as well as the oppression of women in many secluded communities. (The film has unmistakable parallels to another Telluride premiere, Sarah Polley’s Women Talking.)
The community’s priest (Oscar nominee Ciaran Hinds) and doctor (Toby Jones) look down on Lib, though she clearly has much more knowledge than they do, as well as considerably more compassion. Lib has her own troubled past, which is gradually revealed, and this may partly explain her desire to save the child under her care. Her only real ally is a journalist from England (Tom Burke), who is investigating a story that has obviously traveled beyond the confines of this small village.
Technically, the film is a striking achievement, with elegant, appropriately dark-tinged cinematography by Ari Wegner, who also shot The Power of the Dog last year. The eerie musical score by Matthew Herbert contributes to the movie’s impact.
But nothing would work quite as well without the performance by Pugh. She commands the screen from her very first appearance, and we never have doubts that anyone who tries to interfere with her will be facing a formidable adversary. Lib is by no means a paragon of virtue: She has unmistakable arrogance, and her judgment is not always perfect. But her concern for the child is never in question, and we’re always invested in her quest to find freedom for herself and young Anna. Newcomer Cassidy works beautifully under Lelio’s direction. We can never be completely certain if she is concealing crucial information, and this ambiguity adds to the movie’s power.
Some of the other actors have too little to do. Hinds’ role seems underwritten, and other family members are also sketched a little too hazily. But there’s no disputing the power of the story and of the central performance. Pugh has shown great strength in earlier films like Lady Macbeth and Little Women, but here she rivets our attention from first frame to last. In a world increasingly threatened by religious extremism and male arrogance, we can take some comfort from the idea that women like Lib Wright — at least as embodied by Florence Pugh — are around to fight the good fight and even achieve occasional victories.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Production companies: House Productions, Element Productions, Screen Ireland
Cast: Florence Pugh, Kila Lord Cassidy, Tom Burke, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Niamh Algar, Elaine Cassidy, Bryan F. O’Byrne
Director: Sebastian Lelio
Screenwriters: Emma Donoghue, Alice Birch, Sebastian Lelio
Novel by: Emma Donoghue
Producers: Ed Guiney, Tessa Ross, Andrew Lowe, Juliette Howell
Director of photography: Ari Wegner
Production designer: Grant Montgomery
Costume designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Editor: Kristina Hetherington
Music: Matthew Herbert
Casting: Nina Gold
1 hour 48 minutes