Pugh plays Lib Wright, an English nurse in the year 1862, a year when the Great Famine of the 1840s left scars on the Irish countryside to which she travels. She’s been summoned there by a committee looking for answers about a local girl who appears to be a miracle – one that no doubt includes guaranteed characters played by Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and Brian F. O’Byrne. Nine-year-old Anna O’Donnell (the excellent Kila Lord Cassidy) has not eaten for four months. She claims to live only on manna from heaven, and her survival has led to worshipers seeking to confer with this would-be saint. Her mother Rosaleen (Cassidy’s real mother Elaine) insists there’s no trickery here, but Lib’s job is to watch Anna to see if food is somehow being sneaked into her bedroom. A journalist named William (Tom Burke) has also traveled there to boost Lib’s skepticism, and it is no coincidence that both the author and the nurse have taken the grief of the loss with them.
Lib is constantly told, “You’re only here to watch.” She is the observer, just like us. There are fascinating bookends to this story that probably go too far, but it’s interesting to see a play that’s about faith and skepticism in equal measure be so directly confrontational with its audience. Of course, Lib’s instinct kicks in where most viewers would – suspicious of Anna not eating and then increasingly concerned about her declining physical condition. Pugh takes us on the journey from skepticism to concern, and “The Wonder” becomes a study in empathy and action. How long can we be expected to just “watch” when a child’s life is in danger? How long can we remain inactive when belief is destructive enough to tear communities and families apart?
A drama this ambitious calls for a fearless performer like Pugh, who knows exactly the tightrope to walk when it comes to the story’s fine balance between realism and melodrama. Pugh can’t push the throttle too far into the emotional or risk turning “The Wonder” into a more traditional melodrama, the kind of thing that’s easier to place in a box and walk away. Lelio doesn’t want that. He wants viewers to feel as uneasy as Lib, who becomes increasingly unmoored as she realizes that she has either been asked to witness a miracle or the death of a child. Lib’s uncertainty is enhanced by an excellent score by Lelio’s regular composer Matthew Herbert that eschews the ordinary for period pieces in favor of something more uncomfortable. And the phenomenal Ari Wegner (“The power of the dog“) shoots the film with a gloomy, gray palette that almost makes it feel like a horror film.