- Courtesy Of Netflix
- Pugh plays a nurse hired to watch over a fasting girl in Lelio's immersive period piece.
If you rushed out to see Florence Pugh get cozy with Harry Styles in September's Don't Worry Darling (now on HBO Max and rentable), you may have found more style than substance in the movie behind the tabloid headlines. But there are better showcases this year for Flo's acting chops — such as this relatively unheralded Netflix adaptation of Emma Donoghue's 2016 novel The Wonder, not to be confused with the films Wonder (2017) or To the Wonder (2012).
The slow-burn period drama was directed by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, known for Gloria and A Fantastic Woman.
In 1862, English nurse Lib Wright (Pugh) arrives in a small village in the Irish Midlands. She's been hired by a council of local elders to supervise 11-year-old Anna O'Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy), a peasant girl who claims not to have eaten a bite for the past four months.
The pious Anna has already attracted journalists and curiosity seekers with her claim that Jesus is sustaining her on "manna from heaven." Her priest (Ciarán Hinds) is inclined to agree, while the local doctor (Toby Jones), eager for fame, fancies that Anna might be capable of photosynthesis.
Before they commit to promoting their local "wonder," however, the dignitaries need to make sure Anna isn't a fraud. Lib's job is to watch the child day and night, trading shifts with a nun, and make sure no food passes Anna's lips.
It seems simple enough — until the nurse notices something that everyone else missed. She makes a small change in Anna's daily routine, with disastrous consequences.
Will you like it?
The Wonder belongs to a new breed of historical fictions that don't pretend to be neutral windows on the past. It opens in a modern warehouse full of film sets. A voice-over by Niamh Algar (who plays a supporting character) informs us that what we're about to see is a story about the stories that people use to shape their world.
Then the camera pans in on one of the sets, the fluorescent glare disappears, and the Victorian setting enfolds us. It's a testament to the skills of Lelio and his crew that we quickly forget the modern framing and sink deep into the grubby world of rural Ireland in the wake of the Great Famine.
This is a decidedly un-glam version of the past, featuring interiors lit only by fitful peat fires and clothes that look genuinely handmade. Lib's skirts drag in the mud as she goes to see Anna. A storyteller, like most of the film's characters, she's determined to shed light on the mystery hidden in the gloomy cottage.
Pugh shows her range in Lib's iron resolve; this performance has none of the whimsy of her Oscar-nominated turn as Amy March. Trained by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, Lib approaches the world with grim realism. Though each night she nurses a secret grief, she's lived long enough to know the wisdom of keeping her feelings close to the vest.
Doubting that Anna's survival is a miracle, Lib sets out to prove it by winning the girl's trust — no easy task. Cassidy's Anna may look the part of an ailing angel, but her fierce gaze expresses her absolute determination to follow through on the narrative she prefers — even at the cost of her life.
The Wonder is riveting when it's a chamber drama about the battle of wills — between Lib and Anna, Lib and Anna's mother (Elaine Cassidy), and Lib and the male authorities who don't seem to care that their zeal to prove the existence of miracles could lead to a slow murder. Some of the film's supporting characters suffer from underdevelopment, however — such as a cynical journalist (Tom Burke) whose shifting personality feels like a plot contrivance.
The metafictional framing of The Wonder offers a provocative contrast with the film's intimate portrait of a place and time, reminding us to question everything we see. Ultimately, though, the movie doesn't say much that's new about the cultural power of storytelling. When Lib finally solves the "mystery" at the heart of Anna's motivation, the truth unsurprisingly turns out to be a tale as typical of our own time as Anna's preferred narrative is typical of hers.
The film suggests that where the Victorians saw wonders, we see symptoms of trauma. On the flip side, where they saw insubordination and social chaos, we see self-reinvention and empowerment. (Lelio illustrates such dualities using a Victorian toy called a thaumatrope, Greek for "wonder turner," in which two different pictures appear to blend into one.) While The Wonder doesn't pack the punch it might have, it's most potent when it reminds us that people's lives can depend on our ways of seeing.
If you like this, try...
Saint Maud (2019; Amazon Prime Video, Paramount+, YouTube Primetime, rentable): How might a would-be saint look in our own time? If you can stomach its disturbing elements, Rose Glass' debut is a fascinating character study of a young hospice nurse convinced she's on a mission from Christ.
Benedetta (2021; Hulu, rentable): Paul Verhoeven's outrageous tale of a stigmata-bearing lesbian nun, based on medieval accounts, reminds us that claiming holiness is a time-honored way for women to gain power.
Bright Star (2009; Kanopy): Jane Campion pioneered the feminist period piece, paving the way for films like The Wonder. This lesser-known film of hers, about the awkward romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, is worth a second look.