“Prove it’s nonsense.”
To watch The Wonder is to step into a confessional only to find no divider between the priest and the penitent; here seeing is part of the believing, and the face to face honesty is necessary. This picture begs to be seen, and we’re reminded from the bold open that this is in fact fiction, as the camera pans across a small studio with rigs and scaffolding and tiny sets before punching into what we’re told is 19th century Ireland, carefully curated by costume and set designers of the current. What we’re watching is a factual facsimile at its most basic, and is a deeply moving rumination on the human condition at its deepest and darkest. The Wonder strikes a chord, and like Matthew Herbert’s wondrous score, it sounds and lands like a message from an ancestral and almost astral place on high. This is one of the year’s best and most surprising movies.
The setup is simple enough; the English nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) is shipped off to rural Ireland. She’s tasked with observing the young and fasting Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), who’s believed to have not eaten in four months. Lib approaches the case and her assignment through science, knowing that Anna could not have possibly gone without food for so long. And so she watches, journals, and creates uncomfortable boundaries between Anna and her family and friends. Hot on the heels of the Great Famine, Anna seems to be a beacon of hope for the many who lost children and loved ones, offering them assurance that faith and water are sustenance enough to survive any calamity; that the manna which feeds the belly can be substituted for the manna that fuels the faith. We shall wait and see as Anna tastes and sees the goodness of the Lord. Her communion is crucial for this small community of devout believers.
Lib’s encounters with the truth seeking journalist Will Byrne (Tom Burke) help push the film forwards, even though his character doesn’t organically enter the story itself either; he feels forced, wedged in even, and maybe that’s for good reason. After all, there are only so many corners in a place this small. He marks a turning point, championing truth and calling out lies when he spots deceit. Lib comes to us as a person with a troubled past, gleaned from the careful writing and Pugh’s insightful performance, and with Will – not because of him – she is finally able to nurse her own wounds in order to capably nurse Anna. Lib identifies with the young woman; she sees her as a whole human being, unlike Anna’s family who merely see her as a certified saint propped up on an altar. We must be careful with that which we choose to worship.
There is pain to this picture, adorned with wind broken lips and feigned familial concern, and director Sebastián Lelio’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel (which I cannot wait to read) fully realizes what it means to be alive in a time so stricken by strife. Beneath it all and leveling this wavering affair at every moment is another towering performance from Florence Pugh, whose work continues to solidify her as the best of her generation. There’s simply no one who can do what she does with a glance, a quick line, a bit of silence, and an ultimate eruption of emotion. The Wonder looks even better than cinematographer Ari Wenger’s work on the underseen Lady Macbeth, starring a then newly discovered Pugh. She was great then and even better now, and this film challenges viewers while still being accessible and contemplative. You’ll wonder “why” but also realize “how”, and that’s the power of the picture. This is a piece of fiction, but it’s not all that far or separate from fact, and it’s one of the most understated and overwhelmingly human pictures of 2022.
“We are nothing without stories.”
Rating 4.5 out of 5