“We are nothing without stories, and so we invite you to believe in this one.” A camera panning over a soundstage with Niamh Algar’s voice-over opens Netflix’s The Wonder. An odd way to begin a period piece, director Sebastián Lelio starts audiences off behind the scenes with a narration about fact vs. fiction. The scene introduces the elements of reality vs. fantasy that will be explored throughout the film, even if comes across rather awkwardly. The opening gimmick proves unnecessary once the panning camera rests on Florence Pugh, effectively taking fierce command of the film from that point onward.
Based on a novel by Emma Donoghue, The Wonder takes place in 1862 in The Irish Midlands. Nurse Lib Wright (Pugh) has been hired to watch over 11-year-old Anna O’Dowell (Kíla Lord Cassidy). The girl has survived without eating for months. Lib shares the watch with Sister Michael (Josie Walker), and they are not to confer. Instead, they must limit their interactions to simply observing the girl. As a woman of science, however, Lib is determined to discover how Anna has survived without proper nourishment.
The story uses this medical implausibility to create a conflict between science and faith. Her attempts at discovery are met with opposition from members of the community who mostly see Anna’s situation as an act from God, a miracle. The extremes they will accept in the name of faith and to convince themselves of the truth are potentially lethal.
The Wonder is not anti-religion as much as it is opposed to extremism. Everyone needs something to believe in, but at what cost? The different characters have specific reasons for wanting to believe the reason Anna lives without eating is an extra natural and holy act. Lib herself has ample reason to believe in a divine hand guiding her to her present situation but instead is guided by logic and reason to uncover the unholy truths behind this “miracle.” The movie also serves as an indictment of present-day affairs where discourses of facts and lies and the devastating effects of these dominate headlines.
The mysterious and eerie tone along with the beauty of the Irish landscape (shot by Ari Wegner) add unique details to the paced storytelling. Lelio adds different layers and fantastical elements to an otherwise straightforward tale to mesmerizing effect. This choice subtly compliments the fact vs. fantasy themes, a successful decision that helps offset the awkward bookends. He creates a moody atmosphere and reveals important plot points in a slow-burn yet thrilling fashion.
The cast is filled with exceptional talent. Unfortunately, some are given little to do. Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Dermot Crowley, and Brian F. O’Byrne are all vastly underused. Anna’s mother is played by Ms. Cassidy’s real-life mother, Elaine Cassidy. She gives an affecting performance and is excellent at portraying a mother whose actions are in conflict with her faith. Tom Burke plays reporter Will Byrne who is covering the case and is strictly on the side of factual truth.
The film however belongs to Florence Pugh. Featured in almost every scene, she commands attention with her subdued yet fierce performance. It is a shame that in 2022 she will be remembered for the subpar Don’t Worry Darling and all the tabloid fodder that accompanied it. She was already one of the great actors of her generation with her equally fierce performance in Midsommar. With The Wonder, she demonstrates she is more than capable of carrying a movie on her own.
Niamh Algar repeats “in, out” as the camera pans from 1862 into a present-day sound stage. Algar stands in frame breaking the fourth wall, and the movie ends on a hopeful note. After nearly two hours, audiences are left with much to digest. The Wonder challenges viewers to ponder the musings it presents and to dissect the importance of both faith and skepticism. It stays in the minds with an absorbing effect. Whether or not one agrees with any of it is after all a matter of perspective.