Jhere’s a puzzling first image in Sebastián Lelio’s weird and unusual period drama The Wonder, taking us somewhere we really didn’t expect, a leap of the foot not into the past but into the present, behind the scenes rather than in them. It begins on a film set, a construction, the soothing voice of Niamh Algar telling us that we are watching a film but that the characters believe in their reality. It’s a terrifically pretentious and ultimately thankless opening gamble, a fourth wall-buster that seems created by someone who doesn’t trust the power of the film it precedes.
Lelio needn’t have worried. Its thoughtful adaptation of Emma Donaghue’s acclaimed 2016 novel needs no gimmick to constrain us, a magnetic and mysterious little marvel rich in atmosphere and allure. Lelio’s framing device takes us from the artifice directly to the face of Florence Pugh, an actress who, thankfully, excels at the exact opposite, never less than absolutely, hypnotically convincing. She plays an English nurse called Lib, called to remote Ireland in the 1860s to investigate and help with the case of Anna, (an assured Kila Lord Cassidy) an 11-year-old girl who hasn’t eaten for four months but remains oddly healthy. She is one of two women, the other being a nun, who is asked to watch her on a rotational basis, reporting any explanation for something so potentially miraculous.
Inspired by Victorian “fasting girls,” who supposedly found ways to survive without food for long periods of time, The Wonder is a stark, slow-burning thriller that uses its medically impossible vanity to ask questions about the facts against the faith at a time when those in the latter camp dominated the conversation. Pugh’s nurse is a staunch supporter of the former, attempting to respect those around her who see it as an act of God (the practice of extreme fasting was attributed to certain saints in the Middle Ages) but gradually, fearfully losing , the patience of those who refuse. face a life-threatening situation with a sense of rationality. Fearless candor has become something we immediately associate with Pugh as a performer, and as such it suits him perfectly.
The bluster about Olivia Wilde’s cursed thriller Don’t Worry Darling and the actor’s other more recent roles being within the limited confines of the MCU both served to briefly distract attention from just how much of an asset she is. accomplished and versatile actress, one of the best we have right now. She’s so in control here that she almost feels like she’s directing the film from within, as if everything around her is exactly what she demands and achieves. It’s reminiscent of both her creepy, self-possessed performance in Lady Macbeth and her indelible, Oscar-nominated work in Midsommar, also playing someone overwhelmed with grief, desperately trying to prevent another horrible thing from happening. happen, dimly aware of the price that comes attached to living with a major loss. I’m still amazed at how good she still is.
Lelio, whose lifeless 2019 drama Disobedience had the uninspired feel of a no-budget daytime soap opera (only one with a whole lot more spitting), is a completely different director here, closer to his Gloria and A Fantastic Woman self. , immersing us in both the muddy sadness and raw natural beauty of its simple setting. Bookend silliness aside (it’s somehow even worse when used at the end), it’s an otherwise understated and elegant film of natural light and unfiltered views.
The Wonder, and Pugh at its center, vibrates with an uneven frustration, which slowly turns into a more defined fury; the recently, horribly recognizable kind who comes from watching others dismiss facts that don’t fit their worldview, no matter who gets hurt. It is by no means anti-religious, but it is proudly anti-religious extremism, laconically challenging the priorities of those who will choose sacrifice over security. It’s all incredibly involving and infuriating without once leaning into the showy histrionics and overworked melodrama that a less delicate and clever adaptation would have lazily relied on. There’s a stubborn and difficult desperation to the characters, exploring the things we could do to convince ourselves and others that something is true.
Praise has been mostly quiet and polite for The Wonder, presented with relatively little fanfare at Telluride, but it’s one of the most persuasive and impactful movies I’ve seen this season. A film about the danger of believing without asking questions that turns us into full-throated believers in whatever Lelio and Pugh can do.