It’s not even up for debate that Florence Pugh is one of the best actors currently working today. She enlivens even the weaker entries in her filmography with her versatile, magnetic performances. After all the noise that surrounded Don’t Worry Darling’s release, it’s refreshing to see Pugh take on a lower budget period drama in The Wonder which shares similarities with her breakout role in Lady Macbeth. Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s acclaimed 2016 novel, The Wonder certainly has merits of its own, but it relies heavily on the commitment of Pugh’s superb turn.
Set in mid-19th-century Ireland, Pugh stars as English nurse Lib who is tasked with venturing to a remote Irish town to observe and investigate an 11-year-old girl called Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy). The girl has allegedly not eaten for four months yet remains healthy and her condition has drawn much attention from around the country. The townsfolk view her condition as a miracle from God, but Lib is sceptical and endeavours to find a more rational explanation, whilst battling with her own personal demons. Hindered by the town’s all male committee who are convinced of Anna’s saintdom, Lib finds herself fighting against the delusions of a patriarchy’s religious fervour.
Directed by Sebastian Lelio and inspired by the Victorian era phenomenon of ‘fasting girls’, the film unexpectedly opens on a soundstage. A voiceover appeals to audiences to believe in the story, much like the characters believe in their own reality. This framing device which bookends the narrative feels forced and gimmicky, its attempt to establish some thematic context about the power of stories seems unnecessary – the film is good enough to achieve this without artifice.
This slightly perplexing opening aside, The Wonder turns its focus on Lib watching and tending to Anna in shifts as she gets to grips with the tensions at play within the village. Pugh is captivating from the off, her inner emotions feel so palpable, with the subtlest of facial expressions portraying immense feeling. Her emotional journey from restrained cynicism to enraged indignation is rendered so organically. Newcomer Cassidy is also compelling, delivering stirring speeches with aplomb. The pair share an engaging chemistry as their relationship evolves from nurse and patient to an almost familial connection. Unfortunately, Pugh’s whirlwind romance with journalist William (Tom Burke) feels less believable, lacking depth and spark.
Lelio builds an atmospheric mood around these characters with alluring cinematography that beautifully captures the isolated, marshy landscape. This is coupled with an unsettling, ominous score from Matthew Herbert that enriches the anxious tone. The Wonder is slow-burn by design but at times it languishes, especially when Pugh is offscreen. The film’s central dichotomy between religion and science isn’t particularly ground-breaking but it’s one that Lelio illustrates compellingly. It’s hard not to be swept up in frustration and anger at the dangerous effects of blind faith at play in the narrative.
Sebastian Lelio’s psychological period thriller is a mixed bag, buoyed by a deeply felt, layered performance from Florence Pugh which confirms her as one of the strongest actors working today.