‘The Wonder’ review: Florence Pugh pursues an enigma

Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s compelling new film, The Wonder, is set in post-famine Ireland in the 19th century, consistent with the trappings of its source material – the 2016 novel by Room author Emma Donoghue sounds obvious, but when the film starts, it’s not on a rain-swept landscape, but rather on a brightly lit modern soundstage, with scaffolding surrounding a boxy house set and a woman’s voice telling us we’re about to watch a movie. She hopes we’ll give in to the illusion, because “without stories, we’re nothing,” she says.

Cinema, in fact, is both a challenge to faith and an opportunity to bind us to the grand narrative of humanity. So every film is potentially, yes, a miracle. But few are paying attention, as if the imaginary audience were culture-hungry innocents or extraterrestrial beings, not well-chilled Netflix subscribers.

Sure, the beginning is arc and it’s twee, but it’s no mindless gimmick. What Lelio and Donoghue (as co-adaptors with Alice Birch) clearly believe is that their Brechtian device – which yields when the camera finally ventures back in time through a ship’s period-clad hold – is a powerful way to connect us English nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), who travels to Ireland reflecting on her own strange invitation to the unreal: a healthy-looking 11-year-old Irish girl who claims she hasn’t eaten a morsel of food in four months, only “manna from Heaven.” Lib was hired by a committee of male elders to monitor Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy) for two weeks and provide their assessment of the girl’s veracity.

Trained on the battlefields of the Crimean War but not entirely powerless in the face of her own vulnerabilities and needs, Lib sees her unusual janitorial job – shared in shifts with a nun and inevitably imposed on a devout, tried family – as both an investigation (is she secretly eating? ) and a campaign to break such a strict fast.

But the single-minded men, who include a doctor (Toby Jones), a priest (Ciaran Hinds) and a landowner (Brian F. O’Byrne), are less concerned with establishing facts than with evidence of the miraculous in the wake of a historical famine. Also floating around the village is a curious but appealingly rational big-city journalist (Tom Burke) whom Lib must decide if he’s either an ally or an obstacle in determining a “wonder girl’s” authenticity, and maybe something more.

A mystery exploring the limits of faith and reason in the more closed corners of society, anchored by a benevolent skeptic who would rather help a child than uncover the fault lines of a community’s oppression, The Wonder undeniably finds its way into these confusing ones Times resonate about belief, facts and manipulation.

Anna’s lonely, culturally-enhanced holiness—genuine but troubling—and Lib’s engagement with it reminded me of a phrase coined by journalist Rachel Aviv for her powerful recent book, Strangers to Ourselves, on mental health and self-narratives: that, what she calls the “psychic hinterland”. It also aptly describes Ari Wegner’s evocative, tactile cinematography, in which a dank house alone on a rough plain is like a ghost on the outer edge of the experience, while explosions of color – dewy greens, purple heather, the glow of a fire – become respites in the gloom .

And yet “The Wonder” can be bumpy, too often it seems to fend for itself and doesn’t let us in. Prepared for theatricality by this opening, we get something very much staged rather than explored, shown rather than expressed. Aside from Pugh’s robust, intelligent portrayal of the quest for truth as a minefield and Cassidy’s imperiously enigmatic, whispering shroud, Lelio — known for his liberal focus on a single lead character (“Woman Fantastic,” “Gloria”) — seems disinterested in the other actors’ roles as living, breathing parts of a community that helped create, still shapes, and perhaps decides, a girl’s destiny.

Lib, of course, has a different idea of ​​Anna’s fate, which sets the nervous tension in the film’s well-handled resolution from its gothic tension and moral responsibility theme. The Wonder may not definitively describe itself, but there is something worth seeing in its admiration for the mysteries of storytelling and self-preservation – articulated at first but revealed in the outlines of its ending.

‘The wonder’

Rated: R, for some sexuality

Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes

To play: Begins Nov. 2, Los Feliz Theater; Landmark Westwood; Bay Theatre, Pacific Palisades; also available on Netflix

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-11-01/wonder-drama-sebastian-lelio-florence-pugh-netflix ‘The Wonder’ review: Florence Pugh pursues an enigma

Sarah Ridley

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