Gemma Creagh ponders Sebastian Lelio’s The Wonder.
The Wonder opens on the constructed wooden builds of Sebastian Lelio’s set, and under the narration of Niamh Algar. Her melliferous voice introduces the film as a story. This stark framing device contrasts against the gritty textures of the post-famine universe within: the dark interiors, the wilds of the Wicklow landscape, all navigated by a well-drawn protagonist in Lib Wright (Florence Pugh).
A nurse, Lib, has been called from England to a remote Irish village to investigate the case of Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy). This 11-year-old girl apparently hasn’t eaten for four months yet remains perfectly healthy. It’s Lib’s task, along with a nun and fellow nurse, to watch Anna in shifts. Lib reports this back to the town’s governing members and clergy with an explanation as to how the girl survives on nothing but “manna from heaven”. When it comes to Anna’s care, Lib clashes with the O’Donnell family, and Anna’s mother, Kitty (Algar) clings tightly to their faith at any cost.
This world of spiritual repressive pressure is no place for Lib. She is a woman of the flesh who unapologetically consumes. She gets high, she shovels down big plates of stew, she indulges her sexuality. Concerned for the girl’s welfare, Lib finds an ally in fellow sceptic and London-based journalist William Byrne (Tom Burke). Bryne is originally from the area and is still reeling from the horrors of the famine – something Lib understands as, off duty, she grapples with her own demons. When Anna’s health takes a turn for the worse, Lib must fight for her survival, unearthing dark secrets in the process.
A tense exploration of trauma, The Wonder is an adaptation of Emma Donaghue’s 2016 novel. A part Irish Element production, this Gothic drama just premiered at the Telluride Film Festival to a warm reception and is due to hit cinemas two weeks ahead of a Netflix release. However only the most elaborate of home setups will do this film justice. The sound design is complex and unnerving. Ari Wegner’s visuals, and careful light placement, are evocative and balance the nuances of the contrasting threads of the story. This layers the tension fueled by deft and restrained performances across the board. Kíla Lord Cassidy is tasked with the difficult responsibility of delivering emotional depth while towing the fine line of maintaining mystery, and she holds her own, delivering against heavyweights Pugh and Algar.
Distinctive in tone, this film is a rich, stylish offering from Chilean Director, Lelio. Having won the Foreign Language Oscar for A Fantastic Woman, he brings a flavour of South American styling with the decadent colour palette, modern otherworldly music and of course that jarring but justified framing device. At one point, mid-story, he has Algar boldly breaking the fourth wall – catching the eye line of the camera. The Wonder continues the themes of religious oppression Lelio examined in Disobedience (2017), casting his objective observation on our history in a manner that serves the story well.
A unique and well-executed film, The Wonder is surprisingly optimistic despite the dark subject matter and an engrossing watch to boot.
The Wonder is in cinemas from 2nd November 2022 and is followed by a Netflix release on the 16th November.