You’ll need to have faith in your core to be swept away by Sebastián Lelio’s lovely and elegiac “The Wonder,”This is a wistful, textured psychodrama which gently guides one to hope and spiritual serenity.
But not a religious kind of faith, to be clear: You’ll just need to believe in, or at least gradually come to accept, the power of stories as a means of survival.
This is a deeply feminine story of strength and determination with heart and teeth. “The Wonder” (making its world premiere at The 2022 Telluride Film Festival) hints at this very suggestion right at the start — perhaps a tad too expressly — and opens on what looks like a contemporary film stage. As the camera pans, it unveils the yarn’s eventual setting, the impoverished Irish Midlands of the 19thCentury is haunted by unimaginable grief since the Great Famine.
As if to tell us a bedtime tale, a voiceover gently requests that we consider the total devotion in which the dwellers are devoted. “The Wonder”They believe in their own truths. As we’d soon find out, one side would be charged by mathematical facts and modern science; the other, by Catholic faith.
Lib Wright (the astonishing Florence Pugh, in a delicately searing performance) is firmly in science’s corner as a top English Nightingale summoned to a remote Irish village for a well-paying yet mysterious duty. After an arduous journey across seas and sweeping landscapes of mist and sward, all cuddled by the masterful Ari Wegner’s dewy cinematography of muted, buttery watercolors, the nurse faces an all-male panel of the town’s bigwigs, including the likes of Doctor McBrearty (Toby Jones) and landowner John Flynn (Brian F. O’Byrne).
Leading the committee is Ciarán Hinds’ imposing Priest Father Thaddeus, who guides Lib through her two-week assignment. She is hired to watch — and Only to watch — the town’s famous 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell (a sensational Kíla Lord Cassidy in a breakthrough role), who hasn’t had any food for four months since her last birthday and yet still shows no signs of weakness or starvation.
The group is overwhelmed by a slew of journalists and tourists who insist on asking questions. They want to know if the girl is real or fake. Learning that she’d share shifts with a nun named Sister Michael (Josie Walker), “Why a nun?”The science-minded Lib asks, but is not convinced that God can intervene. “Welcome to Ireland,”This is her loaded response. In another scene that contrasts Lib’s contemporary ways against the devout town she dismisses as “backwards,”Lib fires “I need facts, not stories,” when told that Anna’s last meal was the body of Christ. She notes this indifferently. “wafer.”
Adapted from “Room” author Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel by Alice Birch, Lelio and Donoghue herself, “The Wonder”All the characters and their conflicts are built patiently and compassionately. This is especially true when Anna, the angelically porcelain and bedridden Anna, enters the story with her gentle and calm demeanor. Donoghue is a master when it comes not only to engaging with resilient feminine headspace, but also surveying a child’s inner world; understanding how little ones cope, adapt, transform and are reborn — that much we know from “Room.”
Lelio, on the other hand, is an expert at portraying women’s strength and tenacity. This can be seen in his remarkable streak of “Gloria,” “A Fantastic Woman”And “Disobedience,”All telling stories that pit women against men’s bile, tradition, and religion. In that regard, you can’t help but feel that there couldn’t have been a more fitting match between the curiosities of an author and filmmaker, while witnessing the cozy cadence in which Anna and Lib warm up to one another.
The duo, each affected by their own trauma and familial grief, have personal and intimate secrets. “The Wonder”In the rooms Lelio & Wegner, it takes time to explain.“The Power of the Dog”) light with shades of baroque, painterly chiaroscuro. Anna is a light-hearted chirpy girl who prays to God for her dead brother. “manna”Her survival is assured by heaven. Frustrated by the girl’s stubbornly religious family (the brittle yet resolute Elaine Cassidy is especially outstanding as the mother), Lib on the other hand gives everything she’s got to listening to and comprehending Anna, who often tells her, “You don’t understand us.”
Because she’s convinced that Anna is being fed in secret, Lib treats the situation like a detective case to be cracked. In a frantic and devastating violation of trust one day, she regretfully tries to shove food down the weakening little one’s throat. (During this masterful, tear-jerker of a scene, expect to secretly wish for Lib’s success while desperately wanting her to stop all the same.) The fragile girl believes in spiritual nourishment, despite her declining health.
Is Anna being brainwashed or has she been manipulated? Benefit seekers are using Anna as a religious slave? It’s not until the persistent journalist Will (Tom Burke) finally breaks Lib and convinces her to collaborate with him that secrets crack wide open. He is a character with a more faith-based past than Lib, and he also has a tragic past. He serves as a logical link in the story; he connects the dots and finds the missing pieces.
If the pair finds something, it would be a sign of the tranquil rhythm Lelio and Kristina Hetherington have created.“The Duke”) establish throughout. Just know that the film possibly gains something from reading Donoghue’s book after seeing the screen adaptation. Then again, it perhaps loses a little something, too; you can’t help but feel a smidgen of hurry when Will and Lib fall into each other’s arms in a moment of need and assume a more luxuriously teased chemistry throughout the pages of the book.
What a feat! “The Wonder”The film is intended to be a cinematic examination on empathy and truth, faith or reason, pride and identity, and other topics. Every aesthetic decision here complements the film’s searching qualities, from Matthew Herbert’s echoey score of dreamy sounds and pregnant screeches — the screaming sorts you’d perhaps hear in a dream or nature — to frequent use of central framing that emphasizes Lib’s growing isolation and desperation. Delivering a towering performance in a budding career already full of them, Pugh especially leaves a memorable trace as Lib tries to get inside Anna’s head, agitatedly sweeping the muddy earth with her “Lady Macbeth”–adjacent garbs in one moment, quietly sinking into her own demons in the next with a softening façade.
It would be simplistic to summarize. “The Wonder”This is not a lesson in blind faith and organized religion. You can see this as an opportunity to listen with humility. This is a far more rewarding way to engage. Lelio is awarded the powerful close. “The Wonder”With every temperate turn. The film is a career-best and ends like a birdsong with an optimistic ending that’s as beautiful as it gets.
“The Wonder”In select U.S. theaters, November. Premieres on Netflix in December.