The Wonder is Gothic without the architecture. Set in rural central Ireland in the wake of the Great Famine of the mid-1800s, director Sebastian Lelio’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel methodically moves the chess pieces around in telling the tale of an 11-year-old girl who has locals mystified as to what God is intending by letting her survive for four months without eating. Atmospheric and intriguing up to a point, it nonetheless feels like much ado about a mildly curious situation that’s been milked for rather more than it’s worth.
Lending the material an added dimension at the outset, Leilo (Gloria, the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman) opens the proceedings on a soundstage from which he shortly moves into the set itself. English nurse Lib (Florence Pugh) has been engaged to come to the Midlands to see what she can make of peasant girl Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy).
A young widow, Lib seems sensible and capable from the get-go and shifts are organized to observe the pale but nonetheless alert eating hold-out. Stern local churchmen have their own views on the matter, while a local newspaperman keen to report on the “miracle girl” also finds himself drawn to Lib; he’s recently lost his spouse as well.
Naturally, everyone has their own views on the matter; the shifting views on what should be done and the abiding priorities of the clergy, politicians, medical workers and scientist are all passably interesting, if also somewhat predictable and something short of riveting. An explanation for how Anna has been able to survive so long eventually surfaces, but even this doesn’t put an end to the controversy and meaning of the entire story, which has implications on multiple levels.
Lelio and cinematographer Ari Wegner keep things interesting visually no matter how dark and bleak the story becomes at times. But regardless of the qualities of the storytelling and the undoubted skills of the actors—Pugh shows colors and moods here that create a fine and varied character–the basic premise never stops feeling at least a tad artificial, concocted and overworked.
Netflix will release in theatres in November and Streaming in December. The Wonder had its World Premiere this weekend at the Telluride Film Festival.