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REVIEW | Florence Pugh is magnetic as she explores the dangers of religious extremism in The Wonder



In 1862, years after the Great Famine, an English Nightingale Nurse, Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), is called to the Irish Midlands by a devout community to conduct a 15-day examination of one of their own. Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy) is an 11-year-old girl who claims not to have eaten for four months, surviving miraculously on “manna from heaven”. As Anna’s health rapidly deteriorates, Lib is determined to unearth the truth, challenging the faith of a community that would prefer to stay believing.

Florence Pugh is consistently the best part of anything that she is in, but it makes things even better when the content she is given is solid. When that happens, it feels like everything flourishes. The Wonder is a film like that; it amplifies Pugh’s talent as an actor while still telling a compelling and heart-wrenching story.

The Wonder follows the character of Elizabeth ‘Lib’ Wright (Florence Pugh), an English nurse who accepts a job in Ireland in 1862. After the Great Famine, Lib has been commissioned (along with a nun) to watch a young girl who claims she has not eaten in four months. A group of male elders in the town, which includes a priest played by Ciarán Hinds and a doctor played by Toby Jones, are trying to decide if it is a miracle or an elaborate hoax. Lib is sceptical, and her scepticism increases when a journalist from London who grew up in the village, William Byrne (Tom Burke), comes to cover the story and further questions the ‘miracle child.’ But through Lib’s relationship with the young girl, Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy), she learns about the community and their faith and how it is used as a mask and tonic to quell other fears and secrets.

The film is based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, who previously wrote Room. Donoghue co-wrote the screenplay alongside director Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) and Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth). All of these collaborators’ previous work shows their ability to tell fascinating stories about women, and The Wonder is the perfect amalgamation of that. The character of Lib comes to Ireland with more than just her physical baggage. And as she is hired to observe, not interfere, we watch as her past affects how she responds to Anna and her predicament.

she was perfectly cast as Lib. Her magnetic screen presence erupts in every scene, making us latch onto the character. As Lib becomes more active in her care of Anna and her concern for the girl, we, as the audience, become invested in Anna’s health and wellness. We want to see Lib succeed because Pugh invites us to feel with her, support her, and fight with her. The role also felt like a back-to-basics moment for Pugh and reminded me a lot of her breakout performance in Lady Macbeth.

One of the biggest themes of the film is faith versus science. This is represented by the fact that Lib’s partner in observation is a nun, Sister Michael (Josie Walker), who alternates shifts with Lib in watching Anna. We are led to believe that while Lib represents the science aspect, Sister Michael represents religion. But this is also important because Lib is not only an outsider but also a scientifically-minded person in a village ruled by faith. A poignant scene that depicts this is when Lib talks to Anna’s mother, Rosaleen (Elaine Cassidy), and asks about Anna’s last meal. Rosaleen responds that it was the ‘body of Christ,’ Lib responds, ‘oh wheat’, and Rosaleen reiterates that it was the body of Christ. We watch as Lib writes in her diary ‘wafer’. William is also a bridge that represents the villagers’ faith and Lib’s science. He believes that there is scientific reasoning for why Anna is the way that she is, but he can only advise Lib about the religious beliefs of the Irish because he grew up in the same village.

One could say that the film is about the dangers of religious extremism, and there is undoubtedly a lot that supports that. But I think it goes further than that and discusses the extremes of grief, trauma, and pain. It speaks to the importance of listening, of doing what you can to help others in need.

The film begins and ends on a strange note. The camera shows a soundstage during the present day, with a narrator (Niamh Algar, who plays the role of Anna’s sister Kitty) telling us that everyone in the story believes in their own truth, and she invites us to be transported into the story with them. This had the opposite effect on me and took me out of the story. The narration would have worked fine without the contextualisation of the soundstage. Whatever the reasoning behind this framing device was, it was a failure on behalf of the writers and director.

Another criticism I had with the film was that many of the supporting characters were underwritten. By the end of the film, I only felt like I got a good sense of Lib, Anna and Rosaleen; everyone else was like thin sketches of characters. I especially felt that with the character of William, who, despite having a haunting backstory and being played by a charismatic actor like Tom Burke, feels incomplete and mainly used as a plot device.

The Wonder is a stunning film. With Florence Pugh at its helm, this period drama transcends from an interesting mystery/thriller to an enjoyable film that will have you glued to the screen from beginning to end.

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