NOW ON NETFLIX! “We are nothing without stories.” This refrain is integral to Sebastián Lelio’s film, The Wonder. It’s safe to say that “stories” form an integral part of Christianity, both within the sacred texts and in the countless anecdotes built around miracles of every variety. This is a film that is brimming with commentary on blind faith and motherhood, even though one can’t deny that it’s a plodding piece of work from the Chilean filmmaker.
Lib Wright, an English nurse, played by “it girl” Florence Pugh, is dispatched to Ireland to get to the bottom of strange reports that a young Irish girl has been living for months without food, with her only sustenance during that time being her faith. Ireland, on the heels of the Great Famine, is desperate for a positive story that will inspire the Irish people. What better than a rumor throughout the British Isles that a modern Catholic miracle is occurring in Ireland.
Anna, the girl in question, is played by Kíla Lord Cassidy in an impressive turn for the young actor. Her devotion is absolute, and she has the unwavering support of her close family and local clergymen, though there are some shocking revelations about her family to come. Even from the jump, it’s evident that something is definitely off with this community. Lib is henceforth assigned to conduct a watch upon Anna, ensuring that she is indeed not eating any food and that this is, in fact, a miracle.
“…Irish girl has been living for months without food, with her only sustenance…being her faith.”
Lib isn’t alone in her skepticism. She meets a journalist assigned to the case, played by Tom Burke of The Souvenir. He and his family have their own dark history involving hunger, and he would like nothing more than to poke holes in the fervor spreading through the Irish countryside. There’s romance to be had between the two, but it never feels particularly compelling or believable in the grand scheme of such a dour narrative. This is a lost opportunity for these two excellent actors.
Lelio upends our expectations from the start as The Wonder starts with a surprising shot of a studio set before panning to Lib on her voyage across the Irish Sea in a ramshackle transport vessel. His early establishment of this film being a façade forces us to question what we’re about to see, but that doesn’t stop the sequence from becoming an exercise in self-indulgence. I just don’t see the necessity because audiences implicitly understand the complex nature of truth and fiction in tales with a theological bent. Any fourth wall breaking in 2022 really needs to be important, or else it just comes off as obnoxious.
Either way, there’s no denying that The Wonder looks fantastic. Lelio and DP Ari Wegner craft a beautifully composed visual experience that often brings to mind a Vermeer painting. But among these green pastures and candle-lit interiors, the performance from Pugh is disappointing. It’s hard not to admire most of her work thus far in her career, but her character is too withdrawn and one-note here to fully take advantage of her natural range as a performer. This is a compelling watch, but we’re left wanting more from a film with such an impressive assemblage of individual pieces.