Hope and despair collide in unsettling fashion in The Wonder, a suspenseful psychological thriller about faith, family, love and reason set in rural Ireland in 1862.
Directed by Sebastian Lelio and adapted by Alice Birch from Emma Donoghue’s Shirley Jackson Award nominated novel, grieving English nurse Lib (another incredible performance from Florence Pugh) arrives in a village ruled by an all-male committee who task her with keeping watch over eleven-year-old Anna (talented newcomer Kíla Lord Cassidy) who claims she hasn’t eaten in four months but appears to be in rude health.
Inspired by real life ‘fasting girls’ news stories following the Great Famine, this richly realised mystical period piece drums up an ambience of disquiet in its compelling exploration of personal and collective trauma and how it can manifest in strange ways.
Lelio begins the film with a framing device at a movie studio stating, “We are nothing without stories” before swiftly transporting the audience to a ship set for Ireland. He sets the scene beautifully, asking the viewer to not harshly judge superstition and belief systems before at least attempting to understand them. As the multiple characters draw their own conclusions as to the mystery at the centre of film, the screenplay fleshes out their backstories and motivations with a sophisticated subtlety, making you care deeply for each one.
The film closely follows Lib’s logical and caring nurse as she meets with the locals. Lib’s encounters with a determined Daily Telegraph reporter eager to break the story of miracle or hoax, played with a determined yet world weary quality by Tom Burke, are portrayed with a slow-burn passion and curiosity that eventually ignites.
Lelio employs a similarly gentle approach with Lib and Anna’s dynamic; at first frustration pierces their scenes, until they begin to open up and share. Then it is trust and devotion that unexpectedly transforms their relationship and in turn delivers multiple emotional wallops. The Wonder grows in power as it tenderly unfolds the complex worlds, wounds and stories inside its characters with captivating insight.