Our film critic Vera Wang is taking on the latest and most buzzed-about movie titles to hit the big and small screens. Check out her take on The Wonder.
Known for his unique, female-centric films like A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience, and Gloria, writer-director Sebastián Lelio returns with The Wonder, a… lukewarm movie that, while neither exciting nor unpleasant, leaves more to be desired in terms of story and character range.
The Wonder is set in 1862, a decade or so after the Great Famine. English nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) is summoned to a small Irish town to observe a girl who has seemingly been surviving without food for four months. Both Lib and Sister Michael, a nun, have been employed by the town watch; for two weeks, they must take separate shifts throughout the day and record Anna O'Donnell’s wellbeing, reporting their separate findings at the end of which to either prove or disprove Anna’s miraculous survival.
The movie does well to deploy contextual exposition naturally, when Lib questions the town watch about her employment. Why her, why a nurse, especially one from England, and why a nun? The first act of the movie is straightforward enough, getting us acquainted with the major players and their alliance to the Catholic or scientific doctrine, which foreshadows the major theme of the movie- religion and Fate.
However, it’s through the second act where the movie loses steam. This becomes especially apparent with the repetitious sequence of Lib’s daily observation shifts. While far from being tedious, one can only assume that they’ve been made so slow-paced, whispery, and sedated to drip-feed information and draw out anticipation for the ‘reveal.’ To no success, however, because by the time the secret is unveiled, you’re bored out of your mind and couldn’t care less if Anna was really blessed by God, or if she was just secretly eating her bedsheets the entire time.
Three questionable and unexplained plot elements make prominent appearances. The first is Lib’s nightly routine of ingesting laudanum and playing with her dead infant’s baby booties. Lib, as a result of losing a child, sees the O'Donnell family’s refusal to feed Anna as child neglect, even going so far as to accuse them of “abandoning” Anna. You’d think the subtext of Lib viewing Anna, an abandoned child under her care, as a second chance at motherhood would be more widely explored, but it isn’t, and it’s frustrating.
The second element is the strange meta-narrative, whereby Niamh Algar, who plays Kitty O’Donnell, stands amongst the real-life set of The Wonder, introducing and concluding the story. Given a secondary acting credit as ‘The Narrator,’ she encourages us to “believe in [this] story… because we are nothing without stories.” The purpose of this fourth-wall break is unclear, and conveys an air of pretentiousness, rather than the provocativeness Lelio was likely intending on.
The third questionable element is the score, which, with its ethereal and otherworldly instrumentals, would have you believe that there’s something much more supernatural at stake here, but there isn’t, and it amounts to nothing.
The Wonder fails to live up to its name in any measurable capacity- at no point do the circumstances of Anna’s survival appear wondrous, and the execution of her story is consistently less than. Pugh’s acting is forced to bear much of the burden, though the required subtle performance can only do so much to maintain audience interest when almost everything else is wholly unassuming. Many elements of the story jump out as interesting subplot or potential sources of tension, but sadly, they’re left to collect dust and quash audience expectations. The haunting ambience is thoroughly misplaced, creating a sense of atmospheric horror for a story that’s really a period family drama. The Wonder is a movie that's neither here nor there, and, with its heavy-footed second act, would ultimately have benefitted from a tighter script and shorter runtime.
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