The Wonder comes to us from writer/exec producer Emma Donoghue, helping to adapt her own book after that worked out so well for her with Room back in 2015. She shares writing credits with Alice Birch (a breakout talent of Lady Macbeth) and director Sebastian Lelio (late of the Julianne Moore trifle Gloria Bell). At the center of it all is star Florence Pugh (the other breakout talent of Lady Macbeth), coming in hot with another psychological drama so soon after Don’t Worry Darling crashed and burned. Alas, the film comes to us by way of Netflix, which has a terrible track record with dramatic thrillers. (See also: I Came By, Things Heard & Seen, godawful The Woman in the Window, fucking Stowaway…)
So what exactly do we have here? Let’s take a look.
The film literally opens on an empty sound stage. In fact, we clearly see the outside of the house in which most of the subsequent film is set. An introductory voice-over outright tells us that this is a movie, politely asking us to believe the story and its characters as completely as the actors do. Certainly a bold opening statement.
The camera pans over and we transition to 1860s Ireland. Pugh plays Elizabeth Wright, an English nurse and a veteran of the Crimean War, who’s been hired for two weeks to oversee an 11-year-old girl named Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy). The kicker is that Anna hasn’t eaten since her last birthday… four months ago. Yet she’s somehow managed to stay alive and perfectly healthy without food for all that time. Thus Wright has been brought in — alongside a nun (Sister Michael, played by Josie Walker) — to closely observe Anna in eight-hour shifts to try and explain this medical miracle.
For her part, the only clue Anna offers is that she’s sustained by “manna from Heaven”. And she means that quite literally. While her entire family is devoutly Christian, Anna is positively obsessed with Jesus and all the saints. Cue the obvious contrast with Wright, the jaded war veteran of scientific persuasion, who has no bloody idea what she’s supposed to be doing here. Especially since she’s stuck in a boggy patch of land that barely deserves to be called a village and Anna’s salt-of-the-earth family insists she stay at home (read: out of a hospital or any clinical setting), which makes any kind of reliable scientific study borderline impossible.
Early and often, the film makes a clear point of portraying religion and science as two sides of the same coin. Which is the truth? As far as the film is concerned, that’s irrelevant. The important thing is that we have a story. This is a movie about our own deep-seated need to explain the inexplicable, by facts or myths or whatever else gets the job done.
I would personally argue that the truth is indeed extremely important and even a halfway-accurate assessment does infinitely more good than a blatant falsehood. Then again, it bears repeating that we’re talking about a family of poor farmers out in the middle of nowhere, still scraping through the aftermath of the Great Potato Famine. It’s entirely possible that this family and this community are clinging onto this miracle because they have literally nothing else. Hell, this whole thing might be a last-ditch cry for attention to get some badly-needed help from overseas — why else would they go to all the time and expense of hiring a nurse out of freaking London?
What might be even worse, these are people who believe in the “fire and brimstone” brand of Christianity, such that suffering is the way to salvation. Which can be a strangely comforting thought among people who’ve suffered so badly and for so long. If they have literally nothing else, no means of hope for anything better than a quick end to a short and miserable life of poverty and starvation, what terrible things might they do to themselves and each other for a shot at eternity in Heaven?
Oh, and there’s also the tiny detail that Wright is only supposed to observe. Everyone in the village makes it repeatedly and emphatically clear — suspiciously so — that she is not to interfere with anything in any way. So there’s that little red flag to consider.
Let’s say — hypothetically — that this whole “miracle” is an elaborate hoax and Wright is in some position to expose it. Between proving the truth and dashing this community’s last hope of getting any kind of help; or playing along with the lie and allowing this family to con people out of their money, which would do the greater harm? Most especially to the girl whose freaking life hangs in the balance?
(Side note: Our protagonist’s last name is “Wright”. That’s a pun. I just got that.)
And into all of that, the movie throws in sexual assault as a plot point. Yikes.
There’s simply no getting around how dour and joyless this movie is. Most scenes are wholly devoid of color, with the minor and muted exception of Wright’s blue dress. There’s practically no comic relief to be seen, and it’s sorely missed in a movie that deals so heavily with the suffering and/or deaths of freaking children. For fuck’s sake, this is a movie in which Florence Pugh has a sex scene that has absolutely no impact on the plot, and the filmmakers went hundreds of thousands of miles out of their way to make it as unsexy as possible. They seriously put in a gratuitous sex scene without any nudity or prurient value at all, so why even bother?!
To be clear, I totally get that all this dull grey misery is a crucial part of selling the themes and the setting. That doesn’t make the film any easier to sit through.
I’m sorry to say that this same dull greyness bleeds into the cast. The only one who’s even moderately successful at rising above to make any kind of impact is Tom Burke, here playing a journalist from London come to serve as a love interest and cynical sounding board for Wright. Kila Lord Cassidy is stuck playing an impenetrable enigma through most of the film, so she’s got nothing to work with until the third act or so. Florence Pugh is visibly straining against the material — ditto for Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds as two of the town elders — and none of them get the chance to tap into even a tenth of their full potential. And nobody else in the supporting cast is even the least bit memorable.
The Wonder falls into that awkward category of movies that I respect more than I like. Sebastian Lelio was not the guy to direct this — if the writers had brought back William Oldroyd or Lenny Abrahamson, I’m sure the film would’ve had the necessary tone to really make it sing. Alas, while the film has an intriguing premise well-suited to exploring these fascinating philosophical concepts, that doesn’t make the film any less tedious to sit through. Given this cast and this premise, the movie should’ve been so much more engaging to watch, but the energy simply isn’t there.
It’s a competently made film that succeeds at making its point, so I can give the movie a barely passing grade on those merits. But given how many awards-caliber movies are currently available (even on Netflix!) and how many are coming out in the immediate future, I can’t justify spending any time on this one.