The Wonder review – Florence Pugh is miraculously good in eerie drama

Toronto film festival: The star plays a nurse investigating an alleged miracle in a captivating period thriller about the dangers of religious fervor

There’s a confounding first frame in Sebastián Lelio’s eerie and unusual period drama The Wonder, taking us somewhere we really didn’t expect, a wrong-footed leap not into the past but into the present, behind the scenes rather than in them. It starts on a film set, a construct, Niamh Algar’s soothing voice telling us that we are watching a film but that the characters believe in their reality. It’s an awfully pretentious and ultimately unrewarding opening gambit, a fourth wall destroyer that seems created by someone who doesn’t trust the power of the film it precedes.

Lelio needn’t have worried. His thoughtful adaptation of Emma Donaghue’s acclaimed 2016 novel doesn’t need a gimmick to compel us, a magnetic and mysterious little marvel rich in atmosphere and allure. Lelio’s framing device takes us from artifice straight to the face of Florence Pugh, an actor who thankfully excels at the exact opposite, never less than utterly, mesmerically convincing. She plays an English nurse called Lib, called out to remote Ireland in the 1860s to investigate and assist on the case of Anna, (an assured Kila Lord Cassidy) an 11-year-old girl who hasn’t eaten for four months yet remains bizarrely healthy. She’s one of two women, the other being a nun, asked to watch her in shifts, reporting back on any explanation for something so potentially miraculous.

Inspired by Victorian era “fasting girls”, who allegedly found ways to survive without food for long periods, The Wonder is a stark, slow-burn thriller that uses its medically impossible conceit to ask questions about fact vs faith at a time when those in the latter camp were dominating the conversation. Pugh’s nurse is a firm believer in the former, attempting respect for those around her who see it as an act of God (the practice of extreme fasting was attributed to some saints during the middle ages) but gradually, fearfully losing patience with those who refuse to deal with a potentially lethal situation with any sense of rationality. A fearless directness has become something we immediately associate with Pugh as a performer and, as such, it’s a perfect fit for her.

The gossipy bluster over Olivia Wilde’s cursed thriller Don’t Worry Darling and the actor’s other most recent roles within the limited constraints of the MCU have both served to briefly draw attention away from just how much of an accomplished and versatile actor she is, one of the best we have right now. She’s so totally in command here that it almost feels as if she’s directing the film from within, like everything around just falls perfectly in line with what she requires and realises. It recalls both her scarily self-possessed breakout performance in Lady Macbeth and her indelible, shoulda-been-Oscar-nominated work in Midsommar, also playing someone weighted down by grief, desperately trying to stop another awful thing from happening, bleakly aware of the price that comes attached to living with major loss. I remain astonished by how good she always is.

Lelio, whose lifeless 2019 drama Disobedience had the uninspired feel of a no-budget daytime soap (just one with a lot more spit), is a completely different director here, closer to his Gloria and A Fantastic Woman self, immersing us in both the muddy grimness and raw natural beauty of his simple setting. Aside from the silliness of the bookending (it’s somehow even worse when used at the end), it’s an otherwise restrained, elegant film of natural light and unfiltered vistas.

The Wonder, and Pugh at its centre, pulses with ragged frustration, which slowly morphs into a more defined fury; the recently, horribly recognisable kind that comes from watching others reject facts that fail to fall in line with their worldview, no matter who gets hurt. It’s by no means anti-religion but it’s proudly anti-religious extremism, tersely challenging the priorities of those who will pick sacrifice over safety. It’s all incredibly involving and infuriating without once leaning into the showy histrionics and overwrought melodrama a less delicate and intelligent adaptation would have lazily relied upon. There’s a dogged, difficult desperation to the characters, exploring the things we might do to convince ourselves and others that something is true.

Praise has mostly been hushed and polite for The Wonder, premiering to relatively little fanfare in Telluride, but it’s one of the more persuasive and punchy films I’ve seen this season. A film about the danger of believing without questioning that turns us into full-throated believers in whatever Lelio and Pugh can do.

  • The Wonder is screening at the Toronto film festival and will be released on Netflix later this year


Benjamin Lee in Toronto

The GuardianTramp

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