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Middleburg Review: “The Wonder” Is Wonderful in Parts, Less So in Whole

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 23rd, 2022

Film poster: “The Wonder”

The Wonder (Sebastián Lelio, 2022) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Based on the eponymous 2016 novel by Emma Donoghue (who wrote the 2010 Room, which was adapted into its own 2015 film), The Wonder stars Florence Pugh (Midsommar) as an English nurse tasked to mid-19th century Ireland in the years following the Great Famine. She arrives to examine the case of 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy, The Doorman), who purportedly hasn’t eaten in 4 months. Alongside her is a nun, whose job is to consider the divine side of things while Pugh’s Lib Wright’s is to look at the medical.

Filled with beautifully atmospheric cinematography from Ari Wegner (The Power of the Dog), the movie is directed by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio (Gloria Bell). It explores the power of faith and, even more, the simultaneous power and terror of love. Pugh shines, as always, but it’s the landscapes, both geographic and metaphysical, that take pride of place.

Florence Pugh in THE WONDER ©2022 Aidan Monaghan/Netflix

Unfortunately, not everything shines with equal cinematic brightness. An intriguing device Lelio uses in the opener, where we drift across a film set and into the narrative, is never returned to until the end, when we reverse the process. This adds nothing to the proceedings; it’s just mise-en-scène in search of a raison d’être. A midpoint sex scene also falls flat, as if intended to spice things up in some way. So, too, does a metaphor about a caged bird not quite land with the desired punch.

And then there is the story itself, which intrigues with mystery and the tantalizing possibility of miracle (or fraud), yet delivers its plot twists with inconsistency. Whether Donoghue or Lelio is responsible for this, I do not know, since I haven’t read the source material, but far too often it seems as if there is much ado about not much at all, if only our protagonist would act.

Kíla Lord Cassidy in THE WONDER ©2022 Aidan Monaghan/Netflix

So it might perhaps seem unfair to judge her when she does. It could just be that this meditation on religion and its ability to corrupt the soul rings anything but novel, even if the facts ring true. The central, plot-based investigation of the drama (are Anna and her family lying or not?) proves secondary to the larger questions of belief and agency. If only it all hung together a little more tightly.

Still, The Wonder offers much to admire. The technical elements are superb and the cast is excellent. Beyond Pugh and Cassidy, the ensemble features Niamh Algar (The Shadow of Violence), Tom Burke (Living), Elaine Cassidy (Acres and Acres), Ciarán Hinds (Belfast), and Toby Jones (First Cow). All are good. So even if the disparate elements of the overall piece don’t quite come together into a wholly meaningful tapestry, each strand is nevertheless adorned with its own separate wonder.

Niamh Algar in THE WONDER ©2022 Aidan Monaghan/Netflix
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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