Directed by Sebastián Lelio — Screenplay by Emma Donoghue, Alice Birch, and Sebastián Lelio.
General audiences are unlikely to see an opening shot as surprising or even mystifying as the opening shot in Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder. If you go in knowing that you are about to watch a period drama set in the 1800s, then you’re going to raise your eyebrows when you see what awaits you. Lelio’s first shot shows an empty film set warehouse and a scaffolded house that likely contains a principal set for the film. A female voice sets the mood by way of an absorbing and mysterious narration that emphasizes how the characters in the story cling to and fully believe the stories they tell. As the camera glides into a set containing Florence Pugh in-character, the film begins properly. It is a showy opening that is effective in underlining the questionable reality of the stories we ourselves gather around a television — or inside a theater — to watch, and, even though this framing device is a narrative-breaking technique (not its only fourth wall-breaker in the film) that isn’t wholly unique (just see last year’s HBO Scenes From A Marriage remake), it absolutely is an opening that takes your hand and asks you to partake in the story’s mystery. I think you should accept the offer and the instruction to buy into what you’re seeing.
Based on the Emma Donoghue novel of the same name, Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder takes place in the 1860s in Ireland, where English nurse Lib Wright (played by Florence Pugh), along with a nun, has been sent to take part in the constant observation of a young girl, Anna (played by Kíla Lord Cassidy), who has supposedly not eaten for an absurd amount of time. A committee wants them to determine whether or not this is a miracle, but preconceived notions may have already made it difficult for anyone to accept conclusions that don’t point to a higher power.
Lelio and his team manage to craft a haunting atmosphere that, when paired with technical elements and acting performances, at certain points almost makes the film feel like an exorcism film. That may sound strange to you, but the mysterious devout confidence that especially Anna but also her family is portrayed with, cinematographer Ari Wegner’s gloomy country landscape, and the score from Matthew Herbert do a lot of hard work to establish that slightly unsettling atmosphere. Herbert’s score is eerie and sometimes ghostlike with its human voices, wind, and distorted sounds that helped to draw me closer to the screen. Herbert’s music might be my favorite singular element in the film. On top of that, the production design and costuming are top-notch and very convincing, in spite of the narrative-breaking opening.
Lelio gets consistently great work out of his leads. Florence Pugh is solid as the concerned nurse that gradually oversteps her boundaries more and more as she becomes more concerned. Pugh is one of the best and most natural performers of her generation so this should come as no surprise. In actuality, I think the most impressive performance is delivered by relative newcomer Kíla Lord Cassidy, whose character’s strange confidence sometimes reads as other-worldly.
To be honest, I thought this film was excellent, and I quite like the idea of focusing audiences’ attention through its narrative-breaking framing device, but with that having been said, I do think it slightly takes away from the central mystery that might initially make people interested in seeing the film. And because of the way the film tends to break the fourth wall, I feel like the film almost does too much to prepare us for, and telegraph, what is going on inside the actual narrative. There is also this romantic development that didn’t entirely work for me.
Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder is an absorbing period drama about the transformative power of stories. It is interested in how stories comfort us through various states of being and emotional duress, trauma, or grief. Like many films before it, it puts science up against religion, only to reveal that the film isn’t so much about whether or not miracles exist, but rather that it is concerned with how far you’re willing to go before you take responsibility and step in. It made me think of everything from the symbolic representation of the Irish famine to the Milgram experiment.
8 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.