In our mundane lives, the idea of a miracle, of an impossible act conjured by some sort of divinity, is an exciting one – but it’s exciting precisely because we know we’ll never have to face it. The Wonder, Sebastian Lelio’s latest and I think finest film, looks at the terror of a miracle, whether it’s a terror brought about by the lies and conspiracies that would be needed to fake one, or the confrontation with eternity that awaits should it prove real. It’s a spine-tingling conundrum, one that only gets more thrilling as this superb period piece marches towards its denouement.
The year is 1862 and an English nurse, Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), is on a boat to Ireland, where she has been tasked with observing a possible miracle. In a remote village, there is an 11-year-old girl called Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy) who claims to have not eaten food in the four months since her birthday, sustained instead purely by ‘manna from heaven’. Lib is there, alongside a nun, to watch Anna in eight hour shifts for a fortnight, to see the truth and report it to an, of course, all-male panel of judges, headed by local physician, Dr McBrearty (Toby Jones), while dashing journalist William Byrne (Tom Burke) waits in the wings for a salacious headline.
Lib is a fascinating character – in fact, the whole world as originally imagined by author of the source novel Emma Donoghue and adapted by Lelio and co-writer Alice Birch is just immaculately constructed. A veteran nurse of the Crimean War, she’s a rare woman for her time in that her cleverness and wilfulness have earned her a respect, albeit a grudging one, from the men around her and yet she knows that this power can be stripped away in an instant. Hers is an influential but precarious position, and Pugh could not be more perfectly suited to walk this tightrope.
She’s phenomenal here as Lib becomes more desperate to find a rational explanation for Anna’s ‘condition’ (some of the local townspeople agree, seeing the whole thing as a hoax) while fighting demons of her own, lulling herself to sleep with laudanum and haunted by shattering grief. Her scenes with Cassidy are particularly remarkable, the bond that Pugh builds with the young actress proving profoundly affecting, elevating an already incredible young performance. Lelio has always been a great director of actors, especially women, and his skill is made all the more evident here.
His and Birch’s dialogue always sounds convincingly from the period without it feeling like an affectation for any of the cast, the final but possibly most crucial part of the immersion that drags you deep into The Wonder’s world. It’s a shame that most people will see this on a Netflix laptop screen as it looks and sounds sublime. Through the camera of DOP Ari Wegner, fast becoming one of the most essential cinematographers working today, the rolling hills of 19th Century Ireland look in a cinema like the Atlantic Ocean turned a verdant green, interiors are beautifully lit by candlelight, and some of the cuts and transitions are just breathtaking.
As for the soundscape, it’s a dizzying mix of ancient and modern, the sounds of nature and crackling fires in the hearth colliding with a score from Matthew Herbert that is both feral and industrial, as if a wild animal has been cornered in a factory. It’s bold work that really helps to sell The Wonder’s riskiest gambit. At the very start of the film, we’re shown a modern soundstage, while a voice (that of Niamh Algar, who also appears in the story proper) tells us that all the characters we’re about to see believe fully in their own story. It feels a bit gimmicky at the time, but Lelio and Birch manage to land it with a jaw-dropping display of thematic confidence.
See, despite the apparent miracles and the looks at the fine lines between faith, fanaticism, and outright madness, The Wonder is not quite about the power of belief itself. It’s more interested in the *choice* to believe in the first place – the local people need to believe in Anna’s miracle because it shows a conquering of hunger, the lethal spectre of which still haunts a land scarred by the recent potato blight and famine. With their opening conceit, Lelio and Birch ask us to emulate their characters and simply choose to believe, even when they’re explicitly breaking down the reality.
It’s a move of fabulous intellectual poise and swagger, a high-mindedness that works in perfect harmony with the more conventional thrills at play. The Wonder is constantly escalating as Lib grows more attached to Anna and unravels more of the mystery, building to a genuine thriller of a finale. So clever, so exciting, and so clearly made with such love for its source material, The Wonder is a masterclass in the seemingly dying art of bringing grown-up literature to the big screen.