MOVIE REVIEW – The Wonder is an impressive historical chamber drama starring Florence Pugh, who is still in terrific form. Surrounded by an exceptional ensemble cast, including Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds, Netflix’s slow-building drama is a film that truly tells a story that deserves both our emotional investment and our patience.
An indictment of blind, religious bigotry, and parental oppression – it’s the lead-up that most reminds us of The Wonder. Starring Florence Pugh and directed by Sebastian Lelio (Disobedience), this blind faith-centered character piece questions the role of power and faith in both then and now society.
A serious but interesting story, exciting in many ways
Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s novel by Alice Birch (Normal People), The Wonder explores the impact of science and religion, and the media on public opinion. As Lib Wright, the English nurse, paid handsomely to watch Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy), Florence Pugh is once again brilliant. Pugh may not be the model beauty to attract the male eye, but her charismatic acting and the way she invests herself to the max in each of her (very different) roles almost draw the eye to the screen.
Pugh’s quality acting is also needed because this film requires both careful attention and “emotional investment” from the viewer. The story of a nurse, oppressed on all sides by the blind faith of an isolated Irish community, who refuses to let a little girl be exploited as a religious martyr, offers Netflix viewers a serious but interesting and, in some ways, exciting film.
Great chemistry between the main characters
Faced with opposition from so-called experts, including the overbearing advice of Dr. McBrearty (Toby Jones), Libet is belittled for her gender, her professional standing, and her adherence to scientific fact. This openness to reason and logic consistently brings her into conflict with the locals as she tries to find out how Anna can survive for four months without food.
Much of The Wonder hinges on the chemistry between the main characters, whether the chemistry between the little girl Anna and Lib or between Lib and William Byrne (Tom Burke). William, by the way, is a third journalistic angle in this unique period drama. Director Lelio also adds to the visual atmosphere by showcasing the stark beauty of the harsh landscape – another film worth watching on 4K/HDR if you have the option.
The motif of grief
In addition to the issues of faith that the film deals with, The Wonder also deals with grief in a very profound way, as it forces Pugh to dig deep when confronted with the loss of a mother through the clever use of symbolism and ritual. A single pair of knitted boots, a spoonful of sedative, and a bead of blood soothe her pain before she drifts into a revelry that banishes her anguish with alcohol and drugs.
These scenes also make up for the slow pace of The Wonder, as the days and nights merge into tiny moments of dialogue. Jones and the somewhat neglected, great actor Ciaran Hinds are given little to do except look angry, disapproving, or indifferent as the story unfolds. They are hampered by the rigid social structures that defined gender roles at the time.
The triumph of petty, bureaucratic thinking over human life
Following some dramatic revelations that soon lead to the deterioration of the child prodigy’s health, The Wonder turns its attention to other matters. It questions the herd mentality of contemporary society, which prefers to avoid painful truths and accept accepted ideas rather than evolve. On the surface, it may want to celebrate human creation, but beneath this façade lurks a film where forward-thinking and cultural progress are shunned by those who fear it.
A world in which some would rather watch people die than admit they made a mistake. A place where petty-minded bureaucracies and indoctrinated committees cower in ignorance, amassing power and public opinion to maintain the status quo. These thoughts remain in the frame as Lib uncovers Anna’s secret, berates her mother, Rosaleen (Elaine Cassidy), and tries to save the little girl’s life.
Lady Macbeth in a different way
In many ways, this play seems a perfect companion piece to Lady Macbeth, also partly written by Birch, which proved to be a breakthrough role for Pugh in 2016. In both films, an actress whose talent is nailed to the screen explores the idea of subjugating women and restrictive gender roles. After successfully breaking into the mainstream with roles in Marvel films, Don’t Worry, Honey, and the upcoming Dune Part Two, Pugh’s superb, charismatic performance in this intriguing film further enhances Pugh’s career and star power.
Featuring a fine cast of character actors and a Florence Pugh at the top of her game, The Wonder tries to deal with some severe issues in the guise of a great historical film. The film is an indictment of blind religious bigotry and parental oppression. It also tackles the issue of female empowerment well without falling into the trap of today’s overblown feminism.