Florence Pugh just keeps getting better and better.
Pugh currently stars in the new Netflix movie THE WONDER (2022), a tale wonderfully written by director Sebastian Lelio, Alice Birch, and Emma Donoghue, the screenplay based on her novel, and it’s a beautiful period piece which takes place in 1862 and tells the story of an English nurse, played by Pugh, sent to the Irish Midlands to investigate a young girl who reportedly has not eaten in four months and is being treated by the religious locals as a miracle girl.
Pugh’s grounded, deeply rooted performance as a determined nurse with her own past scars may be her best yet. This is a steadily told slow burn of a movie, and Pugh keeps it moving forward. It may be slow, but it’s never dull.
Pugh has wowed me before, going back to the first time I saw her in the wrestling comedy drama FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019), an underrated film that I highly recommend. Shortly after that she enjoyed what may have been her breakout role in the horror movie MIDSOMMAR (2019), and she followed that up by playing Amy March in LITTLE WOMEN (2019). Her performance as Amy which really added nuances to the character not really seen before remains my favorite Florence Pugh performance to date. She’s also starred in Marvel’s BLACK WIDOW (2021) and earlier this year in the flawed thriller DON’T WORRY DARLING (2022). She was the best part of both these movies. Pugh is one of my favorite actors working today, and she’s reached the level where if she’s in a movie, you probably want to see it. I know I do.
In THE WONDER, it’s 1862, and English nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) is hired by a committee of men to watch Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy) who supposedly hasn’t eaten in four months. Lib is not to interfere in any way, nor is she to treat the girl, but only to watch. On the surface, the job supposedly is for Lib to find out if it is really true that Anna is not eating. However, the men all have their own agendas. Most of them, since they are all part of this Irish Catholic community, want it to be true, while the more secular Dr. McBrearty (Toby Jones) is hoping more for a medical miracle, a scientific reason why the girl may be able to survive without food, and he keeps suggesting outlandish theories like perhaps she has found a way to convert sunlight into energy, for instance. But the short of it is none of these men is all that interested in having Lib disprove anything.
When Lib meets Anna, she discovers a healthy young girl who prays thirty-three times a day, for each year Christ lived on Earth, and who says she can survive only on manna from Heaven. Lib observes people coming into the home constantly to see her and giving thanks that God has touched her. At first, Lib does not observe Anna consuming any food at tall, but she knows it isn’t possible for the girl to survive this long without food, and so she continues to watch and think, all the while growing closer to the girl and learning more about her, specifically why she is so religious and why she is doing what she is doing.
And once Lib deduces that no one there… not the girl’s family nor the men who hired her… are at all interested in Anna’s well-being, that for reasons of their own they would be content with letting her die, she decides her time of only sitting back and watching is over.
The other stars of THE WONDER are screenwriters Sebastian Lelio, Alice Birch, and Emma Donoghue. The screenplay tells a deeply compelling story filled with intricate and moving characters. It’s a religious story, as the people there as Catholics deeply believe in God, as does young Anna who believes there is a very specific purpose to what she is doing. This is all well and good, but Lib with her secular beliefs is able to see through the one-sided fanaticism and understands clearly that held without check these beliefs will kill Anna because the girl believes her ultimate purpose, her sacrifice, is to die. It’s a thought-provoking script that held my interest throughout. Donoghue previously wrote the screenplay for ROOM (2015), which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
There’s actually one more star here. Young Kila Lord Cassidy is terrific as Anna. She is nearly perfect as the girl who feels she must do this in order to correct a wrong, and she is believable as a youth who feels touched by and close to God. She’s as good as Pugh in this movie, which is very high praise.
Tom Burke plays newspaper reporter Will Byrne, who tries to get Lib to allow him to interview Anna. Lib refuses, but as the two grow closer, and Lib finds herself needing an ally, she changes her mind. Burke made for a memorable Orson Welles in MANK (2020) a couple of years back.
I also enjoyed Elaine Cassidy as Anna’s mother Rosaleen, and Niamh Algar as Anna’s older sister Kitty. And Elaine Cassidy and Kila Lord Cassidy are mother and daughter in real life as well!
And in an inspired bit of casting, the actors who play the members of the committee who hired Lib make for some of the most formidable committee members you’ll ever see. You have Toby Jones as Dr. McBrearty, Ciaran Hinds as Father Thaddeus, Dermot Crowley as Sir Otway, and Brian F. O’Byrne as John Flynn. These guys are all veteran character actors who are terrific here in these roles.
As I said, THE WONDER was directed by Sebastian Lelio, and while this is a slow burn, the story is tight, the performances topnotch, the photography captivating, and the overall feel mesmerizing. Lelio does a very nice job at the helm.
Not everything works. The ending, while satisfying, isn’t exactly plausible, and one has to suspend disbelief a bit to entirely buy into it.
But all in all, I really enjoyed THE WONDER. Its take on religion, specifically faith vs. fanaticism, is a welcomed dialogue here in 2022, a time where religious fanatics are becoming increasingly emboldened, and the lines between faith and fanaticism are becoming more and more blurred. Whether you are religious or not, it’s easy to understand that the concept of a loving God does not hold up when there are human casualties caused by unchecked religious beliefs, a point that is effectively made in THE WONDER.
I give this one three and a half stars.
Four stars- Excellent
Three stars- Very Good
Two stars- Fair
One star- Poor
Zero Stars- Awful