Rarely is there a film ruined for me by a single choice. It seems dismissive to delegate all of a film’s shortcomings to a single decision, character or feature, but occasionally it proves necessary; Mary Corleone comes to mind, and now the framing device utilised in The Wonder. To say the film is framed strangely detracts from just how absurd it is, as if to justify it as a unique artistic choice that is an acquired taste. It yanks you out of the film’s beginning, not allowing you to enjoy the exquisite period piece that follows, before throwing you back out onto the street as the film’s conclusion returns to this device.
It's honestly a shame; The Wonder is full of wonderful performances bringing the clash between scientific process and religious faith to life, as a nurse and nun (played by Florence Pugh and Josie Walker respectively) must observe a girl who has miraculously lived without food for four months, and divulge whether she is blessed or a fraud.
Pugh, as always, delivers an excellent, if unremarkable, performance, adding to her repertoire of period dramas. Newcomer Kíla Lord Cassidy also showcases great talent as the ‘miracle child’ Anna O’Donnell, bringing frailty and tragedy to a role that could have easily hid from the tougher topics the film confronts. They are all meticulously kept under control by Sebastián Lelio’s artful direction and Ari Wegner’s cinematography, organically shifting from sweeping Irish landscapes to murky, candle-lit homes when necessary. Allowing the author of the original text, Emma Donoghue, to pen the screenplay means the film stays grounded in authenticity; the film feels like an Irish drama, despite the risks of telling such a tale through a Chilean director. The Wonder is truly a testament to Lelio’s skill, creating a commendable historical world despite the jarring frame narrative.
Equally, the supporting cast is great, with Toby Jones and Ciarán Hinds effectively playing symbolic, parallel representations of science and faith as standouts. It’s a good dynamic, and works excellently in portraying the patriarchy Pugh’s character must constantly face; there are times when you want to slam your head against the table as the men yell at her reasonable explanations, powerless to see their own foolishness.
If there was one actor who struggled, however, it is Tom Burke. As reporter William Bryne, his appearance feels ham-fisted, serving as both an unnaturally convenient explainer of local contexts, and as one half of a romantic subplot that develops so fast it induces whiplash. It’s no help that his goals are universally unmoving, spending half the film demanding one thing then turning around midway asking for another. He feels like a late edition, an excuse to intensify the stakes of the events that unfold.
Other than him, there is relatively little to complain about for most of the film, as the world is well executed and, minimalist enough to warrant the creative choices made without breaking the story apart. The Wonder could have said ‘based on a true story’, and I would have believed it readily.
Sadly this beautiful world is ripped apart by the ending, an undistinguished but satisfying conclusion that is immediately followed by the dreadful framing device. It feels like a cheap band-aid, taping over the final few cracks of character development with an ‘and then they all woke up’ plot device. If Lelio had simply left this out (as well as a strange moment within the film that referenced them), the film would have done nothing but benefited; you would be reading a review full of praise at this well-executed period drama. The Wonder isn’t entirely clear on what it wants to be, demanding your attention as both historical spectacle and expositional plea to keep the art of storytelling alive. I advise viewers to consider it only as the former, and to look upon the first and last few minutes as the smallest of coffee stains on an otherwise brilliant film.
The Wonder will be released on Netflix on November 16th.
Edited by Lydia Leung, Film & TV Head Editor