‘The Wonder’ is an atmospheric tale of faith versus medicine

‘The Wonder’ is an atmospheric tale of faith versus medicine

Florence Pugh plays a 19th-century nurse fighting Catholic mysticism with medical facts in Netflix’s austere period drama.

Leah Greenblatt

“Anna O’Donnell doesn’t eat.” That’s all a nurse named Elizabeth Wright (Florence Pugh) has been told — not that her medical training allows her to believe it for a moment — and why she’s been summoned from London to a remote village in Ireland in Sebastian Lelio‘s moody, cloistered drama (in limited release now, and on Netflix Nov. 16).

It’s 1862, not far out from the Great Famine, and the sight of a British citizen in any kind of uniform is still not particularly welcome by the locals. The feeling is mutual: Elizabeth or Lib, as her young patient calls her, doesn’t know why she was brought here for a case that seems based on faith, and science, or if it’s worth trying to assert her expertise in a country where a woman’s word is hardly more important than a dog’s.

But still she agrees to observe 11-year-old Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy) for two weeks without interfering, splitting shifts with a nearly silent nun brought in to share the duties (Why a nun? Lib asks, “Welcome from Ireland?” Anna is a sweet, if not unusually religious, girl. She survives, she promises Lib beatifically on “manna form heaven,” more soul-filling that any earthly food. That’s impossible, of course, though the panel of local (and naturally all-male) grandees in charge of the investigation, including an officious doctor (Toby Jones) and the O’Donnell’s solemn parish priest (an underused Ciaran Hinds), each have their own more or less ridiculous theories.

The Wonder

Credit: Aidan Monaghan/Netflix

The longer Lib spends circling the girl’s secret, the further she feels from the source, though she finds that hard to convey to the journalist at her boarding house who’s also come up for London determined to ferret out the truth, a rakish disbeliever named William Byrne (The Souvenir‘s Tom Burke, the only one who seems to be halfway enjoying himself in this town.) The villager who visit Anna to pay respect, or simply to enjoy the presence of a sanctified girl who seems to have her own direct line with God, call her a “jewel, a wonder”, while William calls her a “wee faker”.

For Lib, she is a puzzle to solve and then slowly, an object that can be real sympathy. Perhaps it’s her own pain. In public she’s brusquely guarded and reserved, but in her bedroom at night, the woman who has assured her hosts that she is a widow without children performs a strange ritual. It involves the careful placement of a pair of knitted baby boots and a spoonful (laudanum) of heavy syrup. heroin?) That makes her swoon.

There have been numerous books and think pieces about the 19th-century phenomenon of so-called “fasting girls” — mostly adolescents caught up in a religious fervor, or more likely, merely chafing at the narrow confines of their Victorian lives. Novelist Emma Donoghue (Room) based her 2016 novel The Wonder on one of those stories, and its subject matter seems like ripe fodder for Lelio, the Oscar-winning Chilean auteur whose gift for inhabiting the female gaze was crystallized in films like Gloria, A Fantastic Woman, and Disobedience. Pugh is a perfect casting choice, a actress with such an emotional presence that she cuts through pretense and triviality like the hot knife.

The sumptuous cinematography, by Ari Wegner (The Power of the Dog, Zola), makes the landscape look like a Bronte novel, full of windswept moors and flickering, fire-lit shadows. However, the script feels less bold and less well-formed than its central star’s performance. Lelio frames it all through a metamodern lens, bookending the movie with a self conscious narration about “telling tales” and then pulling back to reveal the studio set with all its scaffolding, wires, and backlot debris. It’s a strange choice, but aren’t all movies stories? It’s not an organic choice for a filmmaker whose vision of his own material has been so clear and personal. Instead, Wonder‘s sparse, muted intrigue hangs mostly on Pugh and atmosphere, an elusive minor-key mystery. Grade: B

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