Science clashes with religion as a nurse investigates a miracle in The Wonder
The Wonder is a period drama with a serious amount of skill behind and infront of the camera. Directed by Sebastian Lelio (A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience) from a novel by Emma Donoghue (Room) and starring an abundance of British and Irish talent, it should be at the top of your watch list for 2022.
Nurse Elizabeth ‘Lib’ Wright is called to rural Ireland in 1862 to investigate a ‘wonder.’ Nine-year-old Anna (newcomer Kila Lord Cassidy) has seemingly not eaten any food for four months, claiming to be surviving only on ‘’manna from heaven.’’ A local committee put together by the village doctor (Toby Jones) and parish priest (Ciaran Hinds) want to investigate if Anna is a true miracle, so ask Lib and a Catholic nun to split shifts watching the girl 24 hours a day for two weeks. They must prove the wonder is all she seems to be.
While everyone in the village appears desperate to believe in the wonder, Lib as a woman of science is obviously sceptical. She is joined in her doubt by a former local turned London journalist William Byrne, who aims to write an article uncovering the truth of the apparent miracle. It’s a battle between science and faith with a young girl’s life hanging in the balance, as after four months of not eating, Anna’s health starts to deteriorate.
Where it would be easy to assume The Wonder is a scathing attack of religious belief and the power it holds, the feeling of film is that it’s not necessarily just religious faith that has such power to sway. It is stories that enthral us. An opening narration suggests that stories are an essential part of life, that we all need the hope they provide and the offer of something to believe in. Yet the film shows us the great capacity stories have to harm – the insidious hold they can have, the propensity to encourage darkness.
With frequent close ups and sound design that puts a constant focus on the sounds of breathing, Lelio invites us to join the watch ourselves. Analysing micro expressions and behaviour like a police profiler, 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?
See more London Film Festival 2022 reviews here
The watch itself feels claustrophobic, Lib and Anna inhabiting a dark room shot nearly entirely at close quarters. There’s such a singular focus on the actors that simple scenes practically sizzle with intensity. The camera has an obsession with eyes, all of which tell us a great deal – Lib’s guarded stoicism, Anna’s trance like fanaticism, her families disturbing awe of her. It’s only outside we feel like we can breathe, with wide open shots of the windswept Irish landscape. It’s stunning cinematography.
Florence Pugh is of course, brilliant. It feels extreme to say this considering she is only 26, but I fully believe Florence to be the greatest actress of her generation. Her Lib has such strength in her work. Is so bold, funny and defiant in her conversation with others. Yet is able to give way to such haunting vulnerability, to speak so much without saying any words, to bleed such tender love and care. She is astounding. Anna’s young actress Kila Lord Cassidy is also making a fantastic debut – she’s one to watch – and I’ve been a fan of Tom Burke for many years, so it’s exciting to see him get some deserved big-name work.
Honestly there is so much to unpack in The Wonder that I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s an extraordinary achievement managing to combine debate over abstract philosophy with investment in diverse, interesting characters and their relationships. On top of all this it manages to tell a cleverly woven, genuinely gripping story that will have you hanging on to every last minute. The Wonder is, well, wonderful.
The Wonder was reviewed as part of the BFI London Film Festival. It is out on Netflix on 16th November 2022