Films that look into the past, at least in my recent experience, centre around a woman who’s breaking the rules. And to clarify, it is, for the most part, good to watch a female character do just that. The female rule breaker in Sebastian Lelio’s The Wonder is Lib (Florence Pugh), a English widow. Before the events that this film depicts, she nursed her fellow countrymen who were dying in the Crimean War. We fast forward from that very familiar battleground to the film’s present day in 1862 when she’s closer to home. She’s in the Irish midlands, a secular woman receiving a lot of money to watch a girl, Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy). The latter does things to pass the time like showing her her collection of saints looking like baseball cards. Anna’s devotion to the saints makes her typically Irish.
But Lib isn’t watch Anna because the latter is just like every other Irish girl from the 19th century. What separates Anna from others is the fact that four months prior, she turned 11 and hasn’t eaten anything since. A few of the men in a five man town council (including Brian F. O’Byrne, Ciaran Hinds, and Toby Jones) think it’s either a religious or scientific miracle. This council hires Lib and a nun to watch Anna to see if she or her family are feeding her on the sly. Lib thinks that something of that sort is happening. But despite of having past experiences watching two superpowers at war, this is the job that’s draining her. She gains an emotional connection with Anna who believes that God is feeding her without food. Will Anna shake her secular beliefs, and who’s saving who here?
Someone writing about film needs to be even handed and fair, and fairness comes with judging a film on its own instead of comparing it to other works. The thing about The Wonder is that, yes, it has its few innovations, but it also feels like it’s following a blueprint instead of feeling like it’s own blueprint. I also need to mention Pugh here, who is excellent at conveying the life of someone who has done a lot of things before this equally interesting chapter. In the spirit of both fairness and truth, co-writers Alice Birch, Emma Donoghue, and Lelio use her the way films use actresses her age a generation ago. In writing this though, I’ll also acknowledge that this screenplay has a surprise that the second and the third act. And what it does what that surprise is pretty marvelous.
By the time this piece for The Wonder goes up, it’s playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. It also comes to Netflix on the 16th.
- Release Date: 11/04/2022