Released into cinemas for a short time before it drops on Netflix (November 15th), The Wonder is adapted from Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel of the same name. It follows Lib (Florence Pugh), a Yorkshire nurse hired by a small Irish village in 1862 to watch over a young girl.
Her charge is Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy, who is superb), a pious 11-year-old who has gained notoriety for having survived some four months without eating. Anna prays constantly and says only that she survives on “manna from heaven”.
So far, so fishy.
It’s clear upon Lib’s arrival that there are vested interests, notably an intimidating panel of male village elders, including the local parish priest (Ciarán Hinds).
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By day, Lib, per strict instruction, may not intervene in any medical sense; she can only watch for clues as to Anna’s unexplained sustenance. By night, she’s swigging opium and gazing meaningfully at unworn baby boots.
The straight-talking local landlord (David Wilmot, who does some great scolding from behind the bar) is under no illusions, nor is the dashing reporter from the Daily Telegraph (Tom Burke), with whom Lib strikes up a romantic relationship.
Still, the mystery of the starving child remains.
The solution is, well, something. Unless you are absolutely fine with weapons-grade melodrama, this is possibly not the movie for you. Every plot progression and twist — from the big reveal to the ludicrous denouement — seems designed to make the average telenovela look like The Bicycle Thieves.
It requires all of the director’s not inconsiderable skill to make these elements work. He’s helped by a stellar cast who bring nuance to characters that — with lesser actors and writing — could have played like 19th century cartoons from Punch Magazine.
The bookending of the film with a contemporary studio setting and thoughts about storytelling falls a bit flat, as does the repeated use of a bird-in-cage thaumatrope.
Ari Wegner’s cinematography finds striking tableaux against a backdrop that between the dramatic outdoors and the snotty interiors is almost overpoweringly green.
Pugh’s emblematic, muddy-hemmed blue dress — designed by Odile Dicks-Mireaux — marks her out against the windswept exteriors. Not for the first time this year, she’s the standout in a film that, given the remarkable personnel involved, really ought to pack a greater punch.