Sunday, March 3, 2024

Movie Review: ‘The Wonder’ is a Slog Buoyed by Florence Pugh

Director: Sebastián Lelio

Writers: Emma Donoghue, Sebastián Lelio, and Alice Birch

Stars: Florence Pugh, Tom Burke, Niamh Algar, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Kíla Lord Cassidy, and Elaine Cassidy. 

Synopsis: A tale of two strangers who transform each other’s lives, a psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.

Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder starts out incredibly promising, with the narrator (Niamh Algar) introducing us to the “film” that is The Wonder and showing the film set that its main characters will populate for the next 103 minutes. Ari Wegner’s impeccable cinematography and Kristina Hetherington’s sharp editing “transports” us to 1862 Ireland, as nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) is tasked to observe a girl (Kíla Lord Cassidy) who has allegedly not eaten in four months. 

Lib believes it’s impossible, but it’s up to her to determine what’s going on. A journalist (Tom Burke) also starts to investigate the phenomenon, and falls in love with Lib in the process, which complicates “the watch.” From there, The Wonder starts to veer off from a linear structure and becomes a fantastical drama, hindering any chance at character development, or legitimate investment. 

Of course, the movie doesn’t want you to invest yourself in the realism of the story, but to be entranced by its metaphors and themes, which are interesting in isolation, but don’t amount to much as soon as the movie is over. I was much more taken aback by Florence Pugh’s incredible performance as Lib Wright, who truly holds the emotional core of the movie together from beginning to end. The scene in which she reveals how Anna (Cassidy) is “not eating” to a committee full of old, white men (featuring underused, but effective performances from Toby Jones and Ciarán Hinds) is the film’s highlight. Pugh continues to prove why she’s one of the greatest performers working today, and her emotional resonance she brings to the moment itself cannot be overstated. 

She shares exciting chemistry between Kíla Lord Cassidy, whose Anna O’Donnell is painted as a “wonder,” because of how she was able to survive this long without food, but her “wonder” is more of a mystery. It’s intriguing to see how Lib tries to peel back that mystery and “wonder” (ha!) how she is able to naturally function for months without food. 

Her real-life mother, Elaine Cassidy, plays Rosaleen O’Donnell, Anna’s mother, and she is just as terrific as Kíla. There’s a legitimate sense of tension going on between Rosaleen and Lib, to which Dr.McBrearty (Jones) tries to subside, but to no avail. Matthew Herbert’s frightening, string-heavy score, adds tons of riveting atmosphere to the material, including Ari Wegner’s amazing cinematography that paints the bleakest world possible. Those elements make the movie watchable, but the film’s numerous flaws prevent it from being a must-see. 

None of the characters are that interesting, especially Tom Burke, a. Byrne’s relationship with Lib is barely developed, and doesn’t give us any time to attach ourselves to their characters, while Anna’s personality consistently shifts in so many different directions that it’s hard for us to start getting invested in the story, and understand what type of “wonder” she exudes. Anna says she gets her “food” from “manna from heaven,” but it may not be the case. This makes for an interesting premise, but Lelio prefers not to explore any of them within its second and third act, and instead craft an ambiguous story whose themes are enthralling enough, but never sticks the landing. 

Because of this, The Wonder doesn’t instill “wonder,” nor enjoyment. It’s watchable enough, because of Pugh holding the emotional fort of the film down, Herbert’s score, and Wegner’s amazing shots, but it won’t linger in my memory more than that. Lelio’s previous films, A Fantastic Woman and Disobedience, are far stronger than The Wonder, though I appreciate him writing female leads that strong actresses can perform with such bravura. It’s a feat to applaud, even if the finished product isn’t perfect. 

Grade: C+


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