Reason: 1862, 13 years after the Great Famine. An English nightingale nurse, Lib Wright, is called to the Irish midlands by a community of believers to conduct a 15-day investigation of one of their own. Anna O’Donnell is an 11-year-old girl who claims not to have eaten for four months, miraculously surviving on “manna from heaven”. As Anna’s health rapidly deteriorates, Lib is determined to uncover the truth and challenge the beliefs of a society that prefers to keep believing.

Review: Despite taking on a significant role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Florence Pugh’s film career has continued to thrive in mature productions that demand the strongest acting talent. Not long ago, Pugh starred in Olivia Wilde’s critically panned Don’t Worry Darling. This movie generally underwhelmed me, but survived, thanks to the presence of a strong lead actress. Sebastian Lelio’s The Wonder is a far better film overall, but is another example of how amazing an actress Florence Pugh is. The wonder is an interesting story wrapped in a very unusual paced film that some viewers may struggle with if they are not prepared to devote themselves to this challenging tale of faith versus fact.

Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, The wonder opens with the arrival of English nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) in a small Irish village. Wright has been summoned by a council of village leaders, including a doctor (Toby Jones), a priest (Ciaran Hinds), a skeptic (Dermot Crowley) and a believer (Brian F. O’Byrne). They’ve hired Wright and a nun to look after Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy), an eleven-year-old who hasn’t eaten in four months. Wright, who saw combat in the Crimean War and has suffered his own personal tragedy, approaches the watch over Anna from a medical and scientific perspective, determined to prove the truth. As patient and nurse get to know each other, they form a tenuous bond as the truth remains unspoken between them. While the villagers and Anna’s family all believe she is alive thanks to “manna from heaven”, Lib is determined to disprove their belief.

Despite the fact that the film lasts 103 minutes, The wonder feels much longer. That’s not to say that this film is dull, but it is presented in a way that lingers on the grey, overcast setting of Ireland, accompanied by an unsettling score by Matthew Herbert. So much of The Wonder is presented in long, static shots that linger uncomfortably long on Florence Pugh standing or sitting in ways that make this feel more like a horror film than a period drama. Within the first twenty minutes of the film, there are countless moments that made me curious about the final conclusion of this story and whether I would be prepared for a shocking plot twist. In fairness, The Wonder is shocking and uncomfortable, both of which are deliberate decisions made by Sebastian Lelio to elicit a reaction from the audience as they experience this story.

What can capture the audience are the bookend sequences that start and end the film. The first shot shows a film set with a voice-over establishing that we are about to see a story and asking us to believe what we are about to see. It is a conscious decision to tell us that what is unfolding on our screen is not real, but a narrative that we can see. Throughout the film, Lib Wright is repeatedly told the same thing: she is meant to see young Anna rather than prove or disprove her ability to survive without food. As Anna grows weaker and no one does anything to save her, Lib Wright becomes increasingly frustrated and needs to do something, and we as the audience feel the same. Sebastian Lelio forces the viewer to be a passive observer of the story, something we often do when watching a film. But when we are not forced to do something, that action becomes much more challenging.

Sebastian Lelio has delivered intense portrayals of women in his films A Fantastic Woman and Gloria Bell, and The Wonder is another good example. The male characters in this film are all in positions of power and uphold their beliefs and laws with an iron fist, while the bulk of the real interactions are left to the women on screen. Except for Tom Burke as reporter William Byrne, none of the men are extremely sympathetic to the young girl who is dying of starvation. Instead, Florence Pugh and the young Kila Lord Cassidy command the screen with their subdued but captivating performances. Niamh Algar is also a standout as Kitty, but Pugh and Cassidy are the highlights here. Pugh does an amazing job that few actresses could have accomplished as she keeps this film centered and prevents it from becoming an overly trite melodrama or a preachy and self-serious film that condemns blind faith.

The wonder is hard to watch because of the elegiac pace and unsettling tone. This movie feels like a horror movie teetering on showing us a jump scare or a viscerally shocking image, and it never does. Sebastian Lelio directs this film in an unconventional way, switching back to conventional storytelling as the third act begins, but is saved by Florence Pugh’s outstanding performance. The Wonder is a perfect example of a movie that is good but with a performance that is outstanding. This film forces the viewer to watch, an action many of us take for granted when a film plays on our screen until we are expected to do nothing else. This is a film that many viewers may turn off after the first 30 minutes or so, but it will be a success for those willing to stay alert until the end.

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