starring Florence Pugh, Niamh Algar, Kila Lord Cassidy, Ciarán Hinds
screenplay by Alice Birch and Emma Donoghue and Sebastián Lelio, based on the novel by Donoghue
directed by Sebastián Lelio
by Walter Chaw Sebastián Lelio's The Wonder aspires to the scabrous experimental satire of Lars von Trier's Dogville, down to establishing itself on an open soundstage, but it doesn't quite have that film's intellectual rigour, nor its nihilism. Some would say that's to its credit. I guess I'm glad I didn't feel like swallowing a shotgun after The Wonder, but I do, er, wonder if its effectiveness isn't undermined by its essential hopefulness. I had a similar problem with co-screenwriter/source novelist Emma Donaghue's Room, which treats severe trauma as not only a thing small children don't suffer for some reason, but a thing small children are designed to heal in adults. It's appalling. Evidently, Donaghue is stuck on a theme, as The Wonder is also about sexual abuse and the imprisonment of a young woman. It's also, again, about a child tasked with redeeming the soul of a family and a society. But as the film ends right at the point the real consequences of the atrocities it portrays are about to bloom, we can at least imagine that its happy ending will be marred by the howl of PTSD's florid demons. The Wonder is an improvement over Room as well in the sense that it's a full-frontal attack on the patriarchy and its repulsive handmaiden--organized religion--rather than a somewhat tepid thriller with mishandled social grenades. Any full-bore offensive against systems of oppression, especially one as handsomely helmed and brilliantly performed as The Wonder, has undeniable value. Yet I can't shake the feeling that Donaghue, for all the darkness of her narratives, is mainly interested in the fairy-tale ending.
I think the illusion-shattering framing device is meant to elevate the picture to the level of allegory, but mostly it tips the artifice of the construction. It's like David Lynch's "Llorando" sequence from Mulholland Drive: sometimes we believe what we're manipulated into believing. I get it. In either case, Florence Pugh is only more impressive for the intensity of her commitment, whatever the formal distractions. She plays young British nurse Lib (Florence Pugh), a big fan of stew (she shovels gobbets of it down her gullet) who is summoned to Ireland to see to the health of a little girl named Anne O'Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy), whom locals and Anne's family claim hasn't eaten in four months. The Wonder is about eating, basically, with Lib needled for her gluttony by a rakish journalist (Tom Burke)--a rude jab made more pointed by her status as an emissary from the country, England, that had so recently starved Ireland during the Great Potato Famine. It feels like a set-up, the start of a horror movie where a hapless girl is lured into a vengeful backwater--and I'm not entirely sure it's not that, ultimately. Lib's voiceover tells us about the power of stories and how she's been led here on the strength of one, but when she sets foot before a council of dour male leaders, she learns she's not to help Anna, just watch her in alternating eight-hour shifts with a taciturn nun to be sure Anna's subsistence on only "manna from heaven" is a real, live miracle. Pugh is Jane Fonda, in other words; Anna is Meg Tilly; and The Wonder is the variation of "mysterious-supernatural-religious-doings flick" that ends in Agnes of God instead of The Devil's Doorway.
More or less a two-hander between Pugh and the revelatory Cassidy, The Wonder additionally features Toby Jones as a typically shiftless, vile town doctor more interested in the discovery of some human form of photosynthesis than in allowing Lib to do her job. The real stars of the piece are Lelio, his cinematographer Ari Wegner (The Power of the Dog), and an eerie, jarring score from Matthew Herbert. Between them, they weave a grief-saturated imagistic and sonic tapestry evoking a place where death has been so plentiful and recent that the gaps that used to be occupied by loved ones are more substantial than the people they've left behind. People shredded by grief and, in some cases (i.e., the O'Donnell family), by a terrible family secret, one that drives the final reveal of The Wonder. I don't want to give the impression that this is a puzzle-box film: the mystery of Anna's condition is never really taken seriously as anything other than powerful men doing their best to play on the superstitions of a devastated community. Rather, The Wonder is a very straightforward, Mildred Pierce-ian women's melodrama about a strong woman--one who has suffered unimaginable loss and soldiered on with the aid of opium and a strong trade skill--who nonetheless values nothing more than the security offered via a traditional marriage bond. If religious hysteria and the systemic endorsement of the unspeakable things men do to women are indicted along the way, shit, there's never a bad time for that. I can't shake the feeling, however, that The Wonder has pulled a lot of punches to be more likable when it'll only ever be as likable as a film like this can be. May as well lean into the rage of the moment and follow the example set by Pugh's razored performance. She is, as they say, an artist with a Thompson.