Movie Review: The Wonder (2022)
To every book a film. Thus, two books by Canadian-Irish author Emma Donoghue have become feature films. One was Room, published to acclaim in 2010 and adapted to acclaim, albeit with some serious detractors, in 2015. The second is The Wonder, published in 2016 and directed by Sebastián Lelio for Netflix in 2022. It’s a slow-cook psychological drama certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, but who knows, you may be in the minority. If so, you won’t be alone.
The Wonder is about Elizabeth “Lib” Wright (Forence Pugh), an English nurse summoned to rural Ireland in 1862 by a council of local elders to observe an adolescent girl named Anna. Anna claims to have not eaten anything but “manna from Heaven” for months. This has turned the fasting girl into a local wonder, a holy child. People from the surrounding area come to speak with her, leaving tithes in a box for the poor. Is the girl lying or is she truly the embodiment of a miracle? This mystery dominates much of the film, and it’s Elizabeth’s job to unravel it.
The second mystery: What will Elizabeth do with what she learns? She’s been through a lot before arriving at her current post. She was a nurse in the Crimean War, a “Nightingale.” She’s lost a child and, since no man is in her life, the father as well. Each night, she returns to her room frustrated with the credulousness and cruelty around her and passes out on laudanum. As her interior life and external predicament bleed into one another, Elizabeth becomes increasingly invested in Anna’s fate.
Pugh is the foremost of the film’s strengths. For me, she seemed to come out of nowhere with her performance in the folk-horror masterpiece Midsommar (2019), although she already had a handful of titles in her filmography, including the historical drama Outlaw King (2018). She’s since appeared in Little Women (2019) and the controversial Don’t Worry Darling (2022). She’s also joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but like Christian Bale, whom Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) sorely abused, her talents are too good for it. To the extent that The Wonder succeeds, it does so in large part due to Pugh.
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The film has many other strengths. Everything from props, costume and sets to cinematography and direction is immersive even as a soundtrack of odd, creepy sounds lends a jarring, otherworldly bent. There’s also a wealth of subtext: English-Irish relations, the Great Famine, Catholicism, patriarchy. The Wonder is even cut in an effective style, a style as apt to linger on next to no action so we think ourselves into the characters as to break off in the middle of a dramatic high so we find ourselves thrust into the next scene. The Wonder’s accolades are well-deserved.
Yet the fine craftsmanship makes the film’s flaws all the more annoying. Little happens for two-thirds of the film, and it seems intent on making sure there’s no one to do anything anyway. Everyone is a mere walk-on in Elizabeth’s travail. Rather than provide a closer look at her love interest journalist William Byrne, the villagers or even Anna herself, Lelio would rather show Elizabeth slowly eating, eating and eating again. This is in deliberate contrast to Anna’s fasting, but it’s also an example of the director’s (and the book’s author’s) need to underscore.
The Wonder indelicately points when it could just let viewers notice. For example, Elizabeth goes by the name Lib. For a character seeking freedom from tyrannies worldly and spiritual, that’s a bit obvious. Elizabeth even gives Anna one of those spinning bird-in-a-cage optical illusions and says it’s up to the girl to decide if the bird is inside or outside the cage. It’s cliché and lazy and also showed up in Rebecca (2020), another film I watched during my Golden Week binge of streaming media. The item is less offending there, however, because that film doesn’t try as hard to be highbrow.
The Wonder’s opening and closing scenes are another example. In these scenes, actress Niamh Algar, who plays Anna’s sister Kitty, is out of character and addresses the audience from inside a film studio. “We are nothing without stories, and so we invite you to believe in this one,” she says. Indeed, the stories we tell about our lives matter. Some are beneficial to our well-being and others are deleterious, but these bookends to the film’s narrative are pretentious, clumsy and wholly unnecessary for expressing what rings true within Elizabeth’s story.
Thus, The Wonder ends up being just another one of those films of the type that crowd our lives now: fantastically costly and atrociously overhyped, masterfully crafted but of little lasting value. Even a middling TV series like Netflix’s Messiah (2020), which explores many of the same issues, can make more of a lasting impact because, like a book, it requires more from its audience: more time, effort and reflection. And that means greater payoff.
Note: I wrote this for Medium.com. If you are reading this on another platform, it has been pirated. I quit the Medium Partner Program, so I’m not doing this for money. It is nice, however, to know someone’s reading, so please clap or comment to let me know somebody’s out there. Gladius adhuc lucet.