The Wonder review: A powerful period drama
Matthew Turner | On 16, Nov 2022
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Cast: Florence Pugh, Tom Burke, Niamh Algar, Kíla Lord Cassidy, Elaine Cassidy
Adapted from the 2016 novel by Emma Donoghue (who co-wrote the screenplay, alongside Alice Birch and director Sebastián Lelio), The Wonder is set in 1862 and stars Florence Pugh as widowed English nurse Lib Wright. Summoned by the elders of a remote Irish community – including Toby Jones as the doctor and Ciaran Hinds as the priest – Lib undertakes the journey to a remote setting, where she’s charged with determining why 11- year-old Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy) has survived for more than four months without eating.
Anna tells Lib that she has survived on “manna from heaven”, a claim that’s strongly believed by the girl’s devoutly religious mother (Elaine Cassidy, also Kila’s real-life mother). It’s clear that the rest of the community are desperate to believe too, but Lib understandably remains sceptical.
The film’s themes of fact and belief have a modern-day resonance, especially at a time when a fanatical devotion to a deeply held conviction might actually result in a serious threat to your health. The superbly written script explores other compelling themes too, from grief and loss to abuse and the dangers of extremism, religious or otherwise.
Whether or not this is a supernatural story, there’s a painful dramatic irony in the fact that, to do the job she’s been asked to do, Lib has to put Anna’s life and health at risk. That complex idea runs throughout the film, exploring the very concept of faith itself – the idea that belief can sustain happiness (in that the townsfolk come to see Anna as a miracle child), even without a base in reality.
Since her extraordinary breakthrough performance in 2016’s Lady Macbeth – which bears a superficial resemblance to The Wonder, and even has a similar blue dress – Florence Pugh has gained a reputation as one of the UK’s very best young actors. She cements that reputation here with a simply astonishing performance, conveying anger, frustration, hurt and compassion, often with minimal dialogue, achieving so much with minimal facial expressions and eye movements alone.
Lelio has gifted her a richly layered character to explore – Lib is by no means perfect and doesn’t always make the right decisions, but she has the courage of her convictions, as well as her own heart-breaking reasons for the choices she makes.
The supporting cast are equally good. Kíla Lord Cassidy has clearly inherited her mother’s acting talent and she delivers an utterly compelling performance that will surely lead to future high-profile roles. In addition, there’s a typically charming and rakish performance from Tom Burke as a journalist for the Daily Telegraph (don’t laugh), who falls for Lib and tries to help her.
Lelio’s direction is impeccable throughout, maintaining suspense and building strong emotion as all the elements are revealed. He’s aided considerably by striking cinematography from Ari Wegner (The Power of the Dog), compounded by an atmospheric score by Matthew Herbert.
The only element that lets the film down is its misguided decision to use a modern-day framing device. When the film opens, Niamh Algar (terrific, but sadly underused) reminds us that we’re watching a film (while the camera pans past an empty soundstage) and invites us to believe in the story we are about to watch. On the one hand, it feels like it was added because the film was made during the Covid-19 pandemic and Lelio wanted to emphasise the importance of storytelling at a time when film production was shutting down. On the other, it feels weirdly at odds with the film’s central message. You’re immediately transported into the story and captivated, only to be wrenched out of it when the framing device reappears. Surely that wasn’t the desired effect?