In September, Florence Pugh starred in the Olivia Wilde directorial, “Don’t Worry Darling.” That film started off as a period drama set in the 1950s, where wives diligently served their husbands, partook in petty gossip, and fawned over the entrepreneur who owned that suburbia. After an accident, it became clear that they were not in a suburban neighborhood but in a sort of simulation that allowed the men in charge to act out their sexist fantasies. “The Wonder” is also a period drama set in the 1860s, where an Irish village is grappling with religious hysteria, family secrets, rampant sexism, and unscientific mumbo jumbo. But then the movie breaks the fourth wall to show that all of it is taking place within an actual film set that exists in contemporary times, thereby making it feel like a simulation of sorts too. It’s weird that this cinematic phenomenon has happened twice this year, and Pugh is in both of them.
Directed and co-written by Sebastián Lelio, along with co-writers Emma Donoghue (who is the writer of the book that the movie is based on) and Alice Birch, “The Wonder” follows Nurse Lib (Pugh), who is called to a rural village in 1862 Ireland. She is tasked with observing the daughter of the O’Donnells, Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), who hasn’t eaten for months and is still apparently thriving. A council of men, formed by Dr. McBrearty (Toby Jones), Sir Otway (Dermot Crowley), Father Thaddeus (Ciarán Hinds), John Flynn (Brían F. O’Byrne), and Seán Ryan (David Wilmot), inform Lib that she’s supposed to just observe this “miracle” without intervening. She’ll be on a rotating shift with Sister Michael (Josie Walker), and the two aren’t supposed to confer with each other so that they can give their uninfluenced reviews about Anna at the end of “the watch.” Things start off pretty simply. But as soon as Lib distances Anna from her family in order to get the most unbiased readings on her, the girl’s physical condition starts to deteriorate, and all kinds of horrific truths bubble to the surface.
“The Wonder” pretty much plays out like a horror movie. The sunless landscape that’s being blasted by wind 24×7. The creaking and dreary insides of the houses. The spine-chilling score. The constant glare of kids or elders watching our protagonist. The lack of any warmth between humans. It’s all horror 101. The only thing that’s missing is a full-on exorcism conducted by Lib and Michael. But, spoiler alert, that is not what happens because Lelio knows that the horrors human beings are capable of conjuring are much more nightmarish than anything supernatural. So, with the help of cinematographer Ari Wegner, editor Kristina Hetherington, production designer Grant Montgomery, and composer Matthew Herbert, he crafts an atmosphere that reflects how people can suck the life out of a person and a whole village for some of the most bogus reasons. If you are watching this in your home (since it’s a Netflix film), you’ll feel the lights dim and the air warp in odd ways with each discomforting revelation. And due to the deliberate pacing, you’ll start to pray that the nightmare ends for Anna and Lib sooner rather than later.
The narrative either functions on two vastly different levels, or it’s all a circle because those two levels are working in synergy with each other. Firstly, there’s the story of Anna and Lib, and it serves as a commentary on how the onus of achieving salvation, pulling off something miraculous, or being the subject of a spectacle falls on women. While men (represented by the council), with all their privilege, education, and power, make the most insane decisions possible, women are forced to clean up their mess, even if it costs them their lives. Anna and her mother Rosaleen’s dynamic reeks of internalized misogyny, and Anna and Lib’s relationship is about liberation. Because Rosaleen is essentially seeking revenge for the death of her son, while Lib is looking to save a child after the death of her own child. A similar contrast can be spotted between the council and Will (Tom Burke), Lib’s lover and journalist, as the former seeks to oppress and the latter wants to emancipate. Now secondly, there’s the fourth-wall-breaking Kitty (Niamh Algar), who tells us to believe in the film’s plot as Lib questions the narrative she’s being fed. This is a little distracting, as it breaks the immersive experience. However, if you sit with it afterwards and think about how Lib’s journey and Kit’s intentions are all about unpacking stories, it kind of makes sense.
When it comes to the performances, Florence Pugh is the linchpin of “The Wonder.” She enters the movie as a blank canvas, willing to get out of the place as soon as she can. But as the days go by, she gets more and more immersed in the village’s culture. And the way Pugh portrays this transformation on a physical level is quite astonishing to watch. Her dialogue delivery is obviously impeccable. However, her silent stares, her impatient gestures, her hasty walking, her stiff posture, and the way she handles her medical tools make Lib feel so tangible. Hence, before the exposition begins, you know that she has lived quite a life before entering this chapter of her story. Kíla Lord Cassidy brings a sense of air-headedness to Anna because that’s how the character is. That said, when the reason behind it becomes apparent, she effortlessly doubles down on that aspect to bring a sense of melancholy to her character. Pugh and Cassidy are excellent together. That said, the entire supporting cast of Niamh, Wilmot, Ruth Bradley, Toby, Dermot, Hinds, O’Byrne, Walker, Elaine Cassidy, Caolan Byrne, and Burke is magnificent as well. Even those little kids who silently creep around the corners of the lodge Pugh stays at are absolutely brilliant.
All in all, “The Wonder” is an eerie, discomforting, and haunting film about the kinds of expectations that are disproportionately placed on either of the sexes. Although it’s not a major highlight, the presence of religion and superstition that permeates through the walls and streets of villages and small towns speaks to the rise of the same in our so-called modern times. And the film makes a call for women and their allies to stand together as the going gets tougher because the only way out of this patriarchal mess is through. To be honest, I don’t really understand the significance of the fourth wall breaks and the emphasis on believing in stories. That is evident in the period drama aspect of the film anyway. The set within a set just unnecessarily complicates things. Hopefully, that won’t draw you away from the amazing performances, especially that of Florence Pugh’s, and the myriad of thought-provoking topics that the film brings to the fore.