Sebastián Lelio’s latest film “The Wonder”, which was released on Netflix a few weeks ago, is quietly tense as its heroine struggles to do her best under one situation which turns out to be more complicated than it seems at first. Although it steadily maintains its detached attitude, the movie patiently builds up its story and characters under its palpably dry but nervous mood, and it is also supported well by another solid performance from its very talented lead actress.
Florence Pugh, a British actress who has steadily advanced since her chilling breakthrough turn in “Lady Macbeth” (2016), plays Elizabeth Wright, a young 19th century British nurse who comes to a small rural Irish village for one certain job. In that village, there is a young girl who has manages to live even though she has supposedly not eaten anything during last several weeks, and several elders of the village including a doctor who examined her want Elizabeth to observe this young girl along with a nun. Although she is not so eager to do that job, Elizabeth follows the instructions from the village elders anyway, and she soon begins her latest job with some understandable skepticism.
All Elizabeth will have to do is just observing that girl in question while also ready for any moment when that girl shows an urge to eat, but she cannot help but feel pity as discerning how poor and desperate that girl’s family is. Like many other people in Ireland, the girl’s family have still been struggling to live and survive even after that devastating famine in the late 1840s, and her parents, who lost their only son during the famine, seem to want to believe that their daughter’s supposedly exceptional state is really a religious wonder to behold.
The girl’s case is a sort of closed room mystery. As far as Elizabeth can see, the girl does not have any opportunity to eat under Elizabeth’s watch, and the nun working with Elizabeth also does not seem to see anything suspicious at all, though her viewpoint may be affected by her religious believe to some degree. The girl claims that she has managed to sustain herself thanks to some kind of blessing, and both the doctor and Elizabeth confirm that the girl’s physical condition is fairy fine even though she has seemingly not eaten anything at all except drinking some water at times.
Quite determined to get to the truth behind the girl, Elizabeth decides to be a little more stringent for removing any reasonable doubt. For example, she checks out the girl’s condition more thoroughly than before, and she also prevents the girl from having any kind of contact with her parents, who are naturally not so pleased about this at all.
As the girl keeps refusing to step back and eat as usual, Elizabeth cannot help but feel more conflicted as time goes by. As a nurse, she is supposed to help her patient getting well, but what she is doing under the village elders’ permission seems to be hurting that girl, and she finds herself more haunted by the memories of someone she lost in the past.
In the meantime, Elizabeth is approached by a young newspaper reporter named William Byrne (Tom Burke). Although he looks more cynical and skeptical than Elizabeth, it subsequently turns out that he actually cares about the case more than he seems to be on the surface, and he becomes an unexpected ally for Elizabeth as she later discerns how complicated the situation surrounding the girl really is. Regardless of whether her wonder is false or not, the girl’s parents may suffer a considerable consequence once she agrees to eat, and Elizabeth becomes more conflicted about what she should do for the girl.
Not hurrying itself at all, the screenplay by Lelio and his co-writers Alice Birch and Emma Donoghue, which is based on Donoghue’s novel of the same name, makes some sharp points on the disadvantaged social position of women during the 19th century. No matter how much Elizabeth tries for the girl, she is disregarded and ignored by the village elders because, well, she is a woman, and they are more interested in protecting their reputation and interest. Even though they may drive the girl to death in the end, that is not the first thing they care about from the beginning, and that eventually prompts Elizabeth to make a rather risky decision later in the story.
Although the movie becomes less tense during its last act, it is still held together well by Pugh’s subtle but powerful acting. While usually unflappable on the surface, Pugh deftly conveys to us whatever is churning behind her character’s rigid façade, and she is also surrounded by a number of engaging performers including Tom Burke, Toby Jones, Niamh Algar, Ciarán Hinds, Elaine Cassidy, and young performer Kíla Lord Cassidy, who is incidentally Elaine Cassidy’s real-life daughter.
Overall, “The Wonder” is surely another interesting work from Lelio, and I think you should check it out especially if you admired his previous works such as “Gloria” (2013), “A Fantastic Woman” (2017), and “Disobedience” (2017). The movie will surely require some patience from you due to its slow narrative pacing and detached atmosphere, but it is still worthwhile to watch thanks to Pugh’s solid acting and several commendable technical aspects including the chilly cinematography by Ari Wegner, who was recently Oscar-nominated for Jane Campion’s great film “The Power of the Dog” (2021). In short, this is one of more interesting films from Netflix during this year, and you may have to give it a chance someday.