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The Wonder review – Lelio’s intriguing drama is too slight to be truly spiritual

Florence Pugh is a 19th century nurse called to investigate a strange happening in a film packed with interesting details but little payoff

A no-nonsense nurse travels to a bleak Irish village in 1862, where she finds herself forced to draw a stick in the mud between fact and fiction, religion and science, stories and reality. The slipperiness of the latter is reflected cinematically in a structural framing device: the film opens and ends on a soundstage that slowly reveals our actors on a set, a voiceover telling us that “we are nothing without stories.” Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder is full of these intriguing choices in an otherwise unremarkable film, an eerie piece of scripture that suffocates within its own self-cloistered confines.

Our nurse in question is Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), an English practitioner who tended to soldiers in the war before suffering her own personal tragedy. She has been tasked with traveling across the Irish Sea in order to ascertain why an eleven-year-old girl named Anna has stopped eating, yet – after four months of this self-starvation – still appears to be healthy and well. Many of the villagers see her as a saint; outsider journalist William (Tom Burke) suspects a conspiracy at play.

Considering this is a film that probes the limits of a mother’s love in a world in where tight-lipped miserablism is a virtue to be praised and pruned, it’s little surprise that the strongest emotional tug comes in scenes from real-life mother-daughter duo Elaine Cassidy and Kíla Lord Cassidy. The younger Cassidy is heartbreakingly reminiscent – spiritually and physically – of the role her mother played as a vulnerable, wayward young girl in Atom Egoyan’s 1999 film Felicia’s Journey, and has clearly inherited a huge deal of her mother’s acting talent (maybe nepo babies should have rights).

While some characters – arguably even Pugh’s – have little to do in such a hermetic setting, it’s sometimes satisfying enough to just watch actors acting: small scale, long takes, almost-imperceptible flashes of complex inner turmoil. With the plot inspired by the Victorian phenomenon of “fasting girls” who claimed divine powers, set against the backdrop of Ireland’s Great Famine, the film is a nimble look at the ways in which society’s ills perversely make us feel like we need to punish ourselves for experiencing latent pleasure after communal suffering.

But as is the case of [protracted sigh] every single horror or psychological thriller film as of late, The Wonder is also a film about grief: specifically, the grief of losing a child, and the steps one takes to work through that trauma. There’s the obligatory shot of a pair of tiny knitted booties (Hemingway’s bet-winning six-word short story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” springs to mind), a house in flames, cursed religious stuff. Matthew Herbert’s gasp-cacophony score grates, overlaying too much noise onto actors who don’t need the music (literally) breathing down their necks. Still there’s also plenty to chew over, too: fascinating editing choices, Florence Pugh somehow finding yet another register to speak in, a look into the camera that somehow didn’t feel hackneyed. And is anyone photographing undulating landscapes with such breathtaking style as Ari Wegner right now?

It all ultimately feels like a lot of atmosphere that doesn’t lead anywhere, with themes and metaphors that are so obvious they sap tension. Lib remains skeptical of the events unfolding, and so do we, given the implausible plot turns that seeming to upend the hitherto naturalism. Given that Lelio is so gutsy in small bursts, it’s sad that we leave his table famished for more.

The Wonder was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022. It will be released in UK cinemas on 4 November.

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