‘The Wonder’: Florence Pugh’s performance makes this strange drama a must-watch

Editor’s note: Anywhere But Hollywood highlights what’s new and worth watching in international television and film. This month the spotlight is on Sebastián Lelio’s “The wonder.”



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Florence Pugh is always a welcome presence on screen, capable of great performances in films that may not always be worthy of them. But when he finds himself in a film that can match his talent, as he does in Sebastián Lelio’s “The Wonder,” it’s a wonder.

Pugh announced herself in the 2016 period drama “Lady Macbeth,” all steel and poise, a commanding presence capable of grabbing a movie by the scruff of the neck and walking away with it. In the years since he’s put that ability to use in all sorts of fare, from superhero flicks to horror flicks to some brawling alongside Harry Styles. Six years later, he returns to direct another period drama. The sang-froid remains, the same steel, but now she is a different actress, able to shoulder even more. In “The Wonder,” a film of considerable emotional depth that demands much from its actors, the result is perhaps his best work to date.

Set in 1860s Ireland, Pugh plays Lib, an English nurse and Crimean War veteran who has been summoned to a remote community to examine an 11-year-old girl. Baby Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy) claims she hasn’t eaten in four months, but miraculously looks fine, surviving, she says, on “the manna from heaven.” A committee of God-fearing elders employ Lib and a second nurse, a nun, to watch over the girl for 15 days, to discern whether a miracle or a hoax is taking place. At no time should they intervene.

From left to right: Kila Lord Cassidy, Tom Burke and Florence Pugh

A simple premise gives birth to a film that is anything but. This is a story about the stories we tell ourselves and the ones we tell ourselves; where reality and fiction merge, in which we are asked to contemplate the knotty ethics of extracting the two. When is a story benign and when is it harmful? Can anything good come from denying someone their own truth?

Lelio’s thriller draws our attention to his artistry and artifice from the start, opening with a slow pan through a film studio, before the camera finds Pugh on a set, in the bowels of a ship, to be exact, bound for Ireland. It’s a bold choice, not unlike the sequences in Joanna Hogg’s recent “The Souvenir: Part II,” which with its film-within-a-film structure forced the audience to contemplate the females and the screws of the process, along with the power and liberation that comes with an act of creation.

Anna seeks a kind of release through her own act of rejection. From the church to the doctor’s office to the guest house where Lib is staying, nothing else is said. It has everyone’s attention, including Tom Burke’s reporter who has traveled from London to watch. He is affable if skeptical and becomes Lib’s unlikely confidant. There is something different about the way the girl’s devoted parents seem to welcome their daughter’s condition, their lack of concern for the nurse.

Florence Pugh as Lib Wright and Kíla Lord Cassidy as Anna O'Donnell

Lelio, the Chilean director behind the Oscar-winning “A Fantastic Woman,” has spent the better part of his career centering stories about women, and his adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel is not different His wires are rarely neat or tidy, and true to form Lib is no saint, with pains and secrets of his own. The relationship between the nurse and the ward is considerably clouded by Lib’s past, just as Anna is terribly burdened by hers. The dual study of the director’s craft, with the two characters together as the central mystery grows between them, sees newcomer Cassidy square off with Pugh. It’s a much more even match than one might suspect, and more exciting than one might assume.

Beautifully photographed by Ari Wenger, the cinematographer behind “Lady Macbeth” and “The Power of the Dog,” Lelio’s feverish tone of narrative is captured both figuratively and literally: Kafkaesque committee meetings drowned in their symmetry , while inside Anna’s dark attic room, Warm candlelight collects cold sweat on a girl’s forehead. The film’s ever-quickening pulse comes from tight editing by Kristina Hetherington, as well as a score by Matthew Herbert, a composer whose roots in dance music remain evident here.

As an adaptation of Donoghue’s novel, it’s excellent, and the framing and willingness to deconstruct the themes of Lelio’s novel elevate it considerably. “The Wonder” is a period drama detached by its setting, even by its plot, aware that its true subject – the seductive character of a good story – refuses all confinement. It’s a bold and daring swing.

Without Pugh’s mesmerizing twist, would it all hold together so easily? Probably not. But that’s another story.

“The Wonder” is available in select theaters on November 2nd and available on Netflix on November 16th.

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