The Wonder (2022) Review!!

Synopsis – Set in the late 1800’s, in The Wonder, Lib Wright is a nurse who goes to Ireland on a two-week assignment to a poor religious village “observe” a young girl, Anna O’Donnell, whose family claims she does not need to eat.

My Take – The debate between science and religion is as old as time itself with everything from philosophical to social, fact and fiction thrown at the table in an effort to prove which has the upper hand. The same can be said for this latest Netflix release.

“We are nothing without stories, and so we invite you to believe in this one.” From the very first fourth-wall-breaking words of the film, tension bubbles between faith and fact around the very act of storytelling, disparate from truth.

Directed by Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman), who is working from a screenplay by Emma Donoghue, Lelio, and Alice Birch, is based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Donoghue, which itself was inspired by the 19th century “Fasting Girls” phenomenon and saw young women and girls appearing to go for months without food, claiming to survive purely on the power of faith. This clash between science and religious belief lies at the heart of this film.

Framed as a slow burn psychological period mystery drama that walks a tight-rope disbanding delusion and faith, here, director Lelio makes a specific emphasis on what counts for belief and what counts for obsession, and how it can sometimes lead us down a path of self-destruction.

While one would assume that the film is a scathing attack of religious belief and the power it holds, but the overall feeling here is that it’s not necessarily just religious faith that has such power to sway. But instead the stories we choose to believe in and the hope we derive from it.

The film aims to show us the great capacity stories have to harm, the insidious hold they can have, and the damage they can cause. Backed by one of Florence Pugh‘s finest performances, the film poses various questions and manages to tell a cleverly woven, genuinely gripping story that will have you hanging on to every last minute.

Set in 1862, the story follows Elizabeth “Lib” Wright (Florence Pugh), an English nurse who served in the Crimean War, and has now been sent to a rural village in Ireland to investigate the case of Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy), a young girl whose family claims has not eaten for four months, but remains inexplicably alive and well.

Paired with a nun, Sister Michael (Josie Walker), with whom she will alternate every eight hours, Lib is tasked with keenly observing, not diagnosing, and create a report of her findings which she must submit to the village council consisting of Doctor McBrearty (Toby Jones), parish priest Father Thaddeus (Ciarán Hinds), town elder Sir Otway (Dermot Crowley) and local landlord John Flynn (Brían F. O’Byrne).

But with news of Anna’s condition spreading, attracting tourists and pilgrims to the village in the hopes of witnessing a miracle, the council and locals seem divided between whether this is a miracle or a fraud, however, Lib begins to suspect that there may be more to Anna’s story than meets the eye, and finds herself caught in a battle between those who believe in the power of faith and those who put their trust in science.

With frequent close ups and sound design that puts a constant focus on the sounds of breathing, director Lelio invites us to join the watch ourselves. Analyzing micro expressions and behaviors, looking for signs of stress, trying to catch someone in a lie. We are just as invested as Lib in trying to figure out the conceit. For surely, it’s trickery that is keeping Anna alive.

In an age where religious superstitions are unearthed and recurring, director Lelio has chosen to make a strong political statement asserting the importance of science over faith. Having a nurse and a nun take turns at observing Anna neatly captures the ideological conflict at the film’s center. With the slow pace emphasizes how agonizing and painful some of the themes and events are.

While the film may take a stand against religious hypocrisy, and particularly the carelessness with which lives are supplanted by agendas, but it does so without vilifying those who see faith as a tool for survival. It deals with themes of disinformation, delusion, and self-destruction, and reiterates how the idea of sin, repentance and guilt during earlier times were so strong that objection and rebellion were not even a choice, sometimes. The film obliterates the idea of any child being gifted, but instead insisting that every child is a wonder in itself.

Nevertheless, there are a few things I would like to point out, which for me as a viewer ended up impacting the whole viewing experience. Beginning with the writing itself.  Despite having a mystical atmospheric background score, beautiful frames, and terrific actors on board, the writing loses its momentum for a bit in between. Although well enacted, the whole narrative that set up the mystery element doesn’t translate well during the revelation sequences.

Plus, once the holy secret is prematurely revealed, the story loses both its intrigue and its driving force, only to recover in the final act that is rebellious, joyous and rewarding. Also, I did understand the need of the occasional fourth wall breaking. It did not seem to have a clear function, other than to reduce one’s ability to really immerse in the story unfolding onscreen.

Performance wise, Florence Pugh is excellent as Lib, infusing the character with a sense of both determination and vulnerability. The whole film plays through Pugh’s face and controlled movement of her eyes. Her skepticism, her knowledge and will to expose an unpleasant secret is everything more than believable. Pugh’s sensuality, passion and human sympathy are the driving forces of a film which might otherwise teeter under the weight of its contrivances.

Kila Lord Cassidy manages to hold her own against Pugh, giving a spectacularly measured, vulnerable performance as Anna, withholding all until one stunning scene of truth. Tom Burke also does well in the period setting and definitely deserves a lot more screen-time.

In other roles, Niamh Algar, David Wilmot, Elaine Cassidy, Caolán Byrne and Josie Walker are earnest, while Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Dermot Crowley and Brían F. O’Byrne are wasted in smaller roles. On the whole, ‘The Wonder’ is a slow burn intriguing exploration about the power of belief that manages to be both precise and utterly compelling.

Directed –

Starring – Florence Pugh, Niamh Algar, Ciarán Hinds

Rated – R

Run Time – 108 minutes

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