- Nate Adams
'The Wonder' review: Florence Pugh puts fact over fiction in middling drama
Courtesy of Netflix
How far would you go to test the boundaries of your faith and put science over logic? That’s the primary question sitting at the heart of Sebastián Leilo’s “The Wonder,” a cautionary, albeit stoic drama about a small Irish community’s beliefs trumping verifiable evidence. Imbued with an exceptional performance by Florence Pugh, the movie is partially undone by an empty framing device in which the film opens with a voiceover revealing the film’s scenic design on a soundstage. The viewer is told what they’re about to see is dramatized, but the people and the actors are real. They believe the story they’re telling, so we should too. It’s an interesting and audacious cold open that festers towards a mute climax and though Leilo’s flourishes are admirable, removing the fourth wall creates confusion and lays flimsy theatrics for the remainder of the film.
Set in the 1862 Irish Midlands where the Irish Potato Famine recently decimated the area (and a few years shy of the Great Famine), “The Wonder” follows Lib Wright (Pugh), a nurse called into action to observe a young girl named Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy) who allegedly hasn’t eaten in four months. The town council, made up of older white men (you’ll spot Ciarán Hinds and Toby Jones as the residential doctor and clergyman), have solicited Lib’s help to determine how Anna has stayed healthy and vigilant. Is this really a miracle from God?
Everyone in the community wants this to be true, but Lib has her own convictions and morals to uphold and heavily scrutinizes the entire situation. She’s dealt with her own traumas and doesn’t believe in miracles and underscores everything, and anything can and must have an explanation. She does form a bond with Anna, who claims to receive her nourishment by “manna from Heaven,” and the two navigate the uneasy political tension by unearthing the truth behind this miraculous fast.
Considering the location and recent events, “The Wonder” has no problem striving for relevance, especially in our current environment when the legalities of women’s bodies are debated on a routine basis. When the truth inevitably comes out, the old, white, men are quick to dismiss the conclusive findings as nothing more than erroneous prodding. Pugh, to her credit, stands her ground and drives “The Wonder” through the more questionable sections, including a speedy developed romance with a local reporter (played by “Mank” standout Tom Burke) that never feels conducive to the story.
Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s novel, “The Wonder” presents an array of fundamental ideals when it comes to separating church and state, but the setting is at times too gothic and bleak, nor does it successfully justify the odd opening and closing shots. I struggle to understand why the filmmakers found them necessary in a film that already told us this was a story worth believing in (having actors reiterate that sentiment several times just seems like unnecessary repetition). Sure, it puts the viewer on notice and emboldens them to justify their own beliefs, but didn’t the entire movie already accomplish that? Not very wondrous if you ask me.
THE WONDER opens in select theaters, including Detroit, before streaming on Netflix Wednesday, November 16th.