Review: The Wonder Puts a Town’s Faith, and One Nurse’s Resolve, to the Test

The official place and time stamp on director Sebastián Lelio’s (Gloria, A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience) latest, The Wonder, is the Irish Midlands circa 1862 (13 years after the Great Famine, for which many Irish still firmly blame the British). The real importance of this period is that it represented a moment when some still clung to old ways and beliefs (mostly informed by religion) while others allowed the “modern” world to creep into their society, where science and fact ruled the day—or at least they made a strong showing. Based on the book by Emma Donoghue (who also had a hand in adapting, along with Lelio and Alice Birch), The Wonder is about many things, but at its core, it centers on challenging the faith of a community in order to get to the truth of a supposed miracle, even if the community in question would rather their faith remain intact.

The film opens with English Nightingale Nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), who recently tended to wounded soldiers during wartime, being hired by a small, devout community to sit and observe 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell (newcomer Kíla Lord Cassidy), who they say hasn’t eaten for four months and is being sustained entirely on “manna from heaven.” She doesn’t seem sickly or even hungry, and so Lib and a nun (Josie Walker) alternate eight-hour shifts watching the girl. They are both instructed in their duties by the town committee, which includes a doctor (Toby Jones), a priest (Ciarán Hinds), and a devout skeptic (Brían F. O’Byrne), all of whom seem to quietly resent the fact that this nurse is English and wouldn’t understand the way things work in this community or Ireland in general.

Lib takes control of the situation, banishing any visitors or pilgrims who believe Anna is some sort of saint in the making; she also forbids Anna any contact with even her family, to see if someone is secretly sneaking her food, some thing that doesn’t sit well with Anna’s mother (Elaine Cassidy, Kila’s real-life mother), who especially doesn’t like not being able to put her daughter to bed each night. During the day, Lib takes Anna on long walks to get fresh air in her but also to test her strength and energy levels. On her off hours, Lib gets to know reporter Will Byrne (Tom Burke), who has come from London to see if the place is allowing Anna to die slowly or if she’s the real deal. It turns out Will is originally from this village and has a better sense of what goes on and why than Lib originally thought. But he got out for a reason, and he clearly resents the belief system that has gotten him sent here in the first place. He and Lib share a similar tragedy in their lives, and it not only serves to bond them, but also fuels their growing skepticism.

Over the course of Lib’s two-week assignment, Anna’s health does begin to get worse, and many blame Lib’s non-believing presence as the reason for Anna’s turn. But the truth is something more ominous, so Lib feels the need to overstep her boundaries as an observer and actually take action to save this impressionable girl. The Wonder is thick with an overcast and muddy atmosphere—everything feels wet and dirty. And although Lib is easily the most put-together person for miles, we watch as the mud stain on the hem of her skirts climbs higher over the course of the film, as if indicating that she’s being dirtied by staying here too long. Pugh being the mostly calm center of this sometimes frantic and emotionally charged place (much like she was in Don’t Worry Darling) also helps the film keep its footing and feel grounded in reality, even as the local doctor is looking for answers to Anna’s survival in ridiculous places. (Does she have the ability to convert sunlight into sustenance?)

Lelio bookends the film with narration that entreats the viewer to engage with stories, especially the one we’re about to watch. It encourages us to not just watch but believe, and that’s solid advice. Lib is on a spiritual journey of her own, but instead of coming out the other end of this assignment believing in God, she believes in the gnawing feeling that she’s being manipulated and lied to by someone using faith as a smokescreen. She learns to trust herself in the end and take extreme action to prevent another tragic loss on her watch. The Wonder dips in and out of greatness and at points the messages seem to repeat themselves a few too may times, but Pugh brings so much pent-up emotion to Lib, it’s impossible not to be drawn into her struggle. Come for the murky landscape but stay for yet another worthy Pugh performance.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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