A film review by Craig J. Koban December 9, 2022


2022, R, 108 mins.

Florence Pugh as Lib Wright  /  Kíla Lord Cassidy as Anna O'Donnell  /  Tom Burke as William Byrne  /  Niamh Algar as Kitty  /  Elaine Cassidy as Rosaleen O'Donnell  /  Toby Jones as Dr. McBrearty  /  Ciarán Hinds as Father Thaddeus 

Directed by Sebastián Lelio  /  Written by Lelio and Emma Donoghue, based on her 2016 novel




Florence Pugh appeared in DON'T WORRY DARLING earlier this past fall, a high concept sci-fi drama that was arguably most memorable because of its scandalous behind the scenes drama at the Venice International Film Festival.  Regardless of the online chatter involving the stars of the film and their feuding ways, Pugh held that wonky production confidently together on the strength of her performance alone.  Without her, Olivia Wilde's sophomore effort would have been a real endurance test to sit through; it was a supreme example of one actress carrying a whole production on her shoulders. 

Now comes Pugh's latest in THE WONDER, a Netflix produced period drama set in mid 1800s Ireland (based on the Emma Donoghue 2016 novel of the same name) that boasts an endlessly intriguing premise: A war veteran English nurse is sent to an Irish village to observe a young girl that is apparently able to survive for several months without eating.  Not only does THE WONDER succeed as yet another potent highlight reel for Pugh's abilities, but it also works strongly as a compelling commentary piece on science versus faith, religious skepticism, women struggling in a male dominated historical period, and, most crucially, child endangerment.  Director Sebastian Lelio (whose A FANTASTIC WOMAN won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) fosters a chilling and absorbing atmosphere that compliments its story and performance merits.  

The "miracle" child in question is Anna O'Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy, in the film's other tour de force performance), an Irish girl that seems to be healthy (well, mostly) despite not eaten any food in three months.  She doesn't appear to be starving, nor does she harbor any noteworthy physical symptoms of food deprivation.  The daughter's mother in Rosaleen (Elaine Cassidy, Kila's real life mother as well) insists that no parlor tricks have been used by her family to keep her daughter alive.  They claim that Anna subsides on the power of God and faith.  Obviously, members of the scientific community severely question the veracity of this, with one of them being Lib Wright (Pugh), a nurse that served in the Crimean War and also has first hand experience dealing with the ravages of famine in the 1840s.  She's summoned by a committee - led by Anna's doctor (Toby Jones) and a priest (Cirian Hinds) - to go to this child's home an observe...and nothing more (in short, Lib has to follow the STAR TREK universe's Prime Directive).  More importantly, Lib is to use all of her keen scientific and deductive powers to discover whether this child has actually eaten and is being snuck food under the table, so to speak. 



Because Lib is a staunch woman of science and has seen so much human misery during the aforementioned war and famine, she's pretty determined to debunk this nine-year-old girl as a massive family led hoax.  Accompanying her from time to time is a journalist named William (Tom Burke), who also fuels the fire of the potential fakery of Anna's condition.  Of course, the child's family and many of the locals don't take kindly to what they perceive as an outsider intruding nurse that has no respect for their beliefs or culture.  Still, the family acquiesces to the committee's demands, and very soon Lib sees that, yes, Anna is both alive and relatively well.  Her mother steadfastly insists that she's alive because of being consumed by "manna from Heaven."  So, is this apparently adjusted and normal girl a bona fide miracle infused with God's love or is she being secretly fed meager portions to keep her alive and the hoax ongoing?  This is the endlessly fascinating hook of THE WONDER, and it's telling that Lelio and Donoghue (co-scripting the film with the director) is more observant than judgmental and allows audiences to experiencing everything alongside Lib and make up their own minds.  It's clear that this film doesn't side with a religious-influenced argument towards Anna's condition, but many characters in the film believe that she's a miracle.  Still, there are other characters (like Lib) that are strong in their beliefs that this family needs to be taken down and revealed to be dangerous charlatans.  

The real horror story resides with young Anna herself.  She's caught between these warring factions and is the real victim.  The longer Lib is allowed to observe (and after she starts to impose strict protocols to ensure that Anna is not being secretly fed) the more the girl's health starts to slip, which greatly worries the nurse and the family at large.  It's at this vantage point when THE WONDER becomes deeply unsettling in its tension filled storytelling.  The tug of war that exists here between science and faith becomes less important when Anna's condition becomes progressively worse.  From this point,  Lib faces a massive crisis of conscience when it comes to fulfilling her sworn oath to help, protect, and save the sick.  She has been instructed not to intrude in any way with this child outside of observation, but how long is she supposed to sit idle at let this getting-sicker-by-the-day kid slowly die?  If Anna is in danger, how can any higher authority allow for this to happen?  And if faith is this destructive of a force, how can it be left unchallenged?  Complicating things for Lib is that she has her own tragic history that comes to the forefront of her clinical mission with Anna, which eventually spills over. 

THE WONDER is enthralling on a thematic level, but Lelio does wonders with the film's imagery and makes an immersively gloomy looking film that evokes the 1862 Irish landscapes as intimidatingly harsh.  This film appears to be always caked with ominous and overcast clouds that suffocates the characters, and when the film is not outside it mostly takes place in the tight and dark confines of Anna's rural home.  The film was shot by THE POWER OF THE DOG's cinematographer Ari Wegner, and both film's are superlative examples of how visually nailing natural environments is a crucial ingredient in selling the historical era in question on top of complimenting the inherent darkness of the narrative.  And then, of course, there's the always assured and commanding presence of Pugh, who easily slips into the costumed melodrama of the piece, but never let's her performance tip over into something theatrically over the top.  Instead, she's fiercely committed to the role while also knowing when to underplay it to the right effect.  In many respects, Lib is a challenging character in the sense that she's a pragmatic, independent minded woman of science that's working in a field and a time period that simply has no respect for her gender on top of being thrust into a situation by her higher ups that challenges her vows to do no harm in her profession.  To watch Pugh here in comparison to her work in DON'T WORRY DARLING - or in even big budget fare like BLACK WIDOW or eerie horror films like MIDSOMMAR - and I'm easily reminded of this actress' supreme ability to segue between such wildly divergent roles and genres.   

Pugh is so good here alongside Lelio's moody direction and the script's thoughtfully rendered conflicts that's it's kind of a shame when some of THE WONDER's other elements don't work as well.  Like, for instance, a bookended approach to the film that's perhaps a bit too distractingly showy, not to mention that Burke's intrepid journalist is a really undercooked character here that appears and disappears when the story deems it necessary.  Burke is a decent enough actor and does what he can with the part, but his interactions with Pugh's Lib and their relationship arc kind of sidetracks the story's more potent and relevant mysteries and ethical conundrums.  The final sections of THE WONDER don't work anywhere near as well as it's first two thirds, especially when it comes to the actions taken by one character and the aftermath of them, which becomes logic straining to the max.  These detrimental aspects don't totally derail THE WONDER, though, as it emerges - all things considered - as an impeccably acted, handsomely produced and shot, thought provokingly written, and challenging commentary on faith-dominated cultures and the morality of dispensing health care when ruthlessly challenged by the former.  The film will also make for an interesting companion piece to the recently released THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN, seeing as both delve deep into Irish history, albeit and respectively set several decades apart and via a different tonal lens.  Lastly, if you're going to watch one Florence Pugh film from 2022 and you're at a fork in the road, just choose THE WONDER over DON'T WORRY DARLING and you'll be fine. 

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