A film about stories is always going to be risky. A film about stories that blatantly points out that it is about stories is even riskier. But in Sebastián Lelio’s new film The Wonder, all the risks pay off. The result? An eerie, somehow hopeful film about the stories that damn us and save us.
The Wonder follows English nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), who is sent to rural Ireland in 1862 to monitor a girl who reportedly has not eaten for over four months. The girl, Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), remarks that she can survive off “manna from Heaven,” but Lib is not convinced. As Anna starts deteriorating, Lib expresses her concerns to both Anna’s family and an Irish journalist Will Byrne (Tom Burke), each of whom has their own motives for finding out – or hiding – the truth. When the truth does out, it’s devastating — and it’s where The Wonder comes together to carry us through Anna’s fate.
The Wonder goes beyond the simple antagonism of a debate between faith and science. It’s not the kind of film that provides a religious explanation; in fact, it openly denounces Catholic guilt and the harm that religious views of morality can espouse, choosing instead a more nuanced conversation about the good and bad power imagination can have. Anna’s survival is only one part of the mystery. The other is her reason for doing so. When Lib discovers it, eyes blinking rapidly as she struggles to comprehend, The Wonder‘s entire narrative seems to halt as the weight of the reveal sets in. The scene really deserves to be experienced firsthand, so all I’ll say here is that it involves Anna’s late brother and the idea of penance. While the plot starts off slow, its pivot draws us in and sets a clear objective for the rest of the film.
Which is not to say that nothing important happens until that scene. The specter of death hangs over The Wonder, its characters seeking a way to move on. Lib’s baby died shortly after birth, remembered throughout the film by the pair of crocheted baby shoes she carries with her. After the Great Famine, the same one that took Will’s family, this community is searching for something to believe in. A girl who by divine hand cannot starve is almost too perfect. The romance between Lib and Will is, at first glance, unexpected; read as an act of necessity, though, as a means of escaping the gut-wrenching despair of this life, it does make sense. And Anna’s religious stories serve as a coping mechanism with a dark twist, but her penchant for imagining different worlds is also what saves her. The Wonder has the potential to be so cruel – yet it chooses joy. That’s the real wonder.
The best and most intriguing part of The Wonder is undoubtedly Matthew Herbert‘s score. Its electronic humming is immediately ahistorical, but the music works as a companion to the film’s themes. Its frequent whispers add an urgent texture to the ethereal harmony, and the overarching melody feels like it’s somehow both a human voice and an instrument. From its role in unsettling drug trips to its elevation of moments of impossible, miraculous happiness, Herbert’s score will stick with you.
Much has been made of The Wonder‘s framing device: instead of placing us in 19th century Ireland, we’re first shown the film’s set. A voiceover announces that we are indeed watching a movie, extolls the virtues of stories, and reminds us that the characters we are about to see believe these stories. The film’s insistence upon regular narrative intrusions of the fourth wall do start to feel a little heavy-handed, though their obviousness does not distract viewers too much. They’re little reminders that the world we’re seeing is simultaneously fake and real, another way of hammering home the The Wonder’s exploration of what it means for something to be true or to be imagined. Perhaps, it seems to suggest, the imagined can be as powerful, as hurtful or as healing, as the real.
The Wonder is a beautiful film that shows the triumphs of storytelling and belief while underscoring their potential for harm. With an unexpectedly modern score and compelling performances, this is one film that shouldn’t get lost in the Netflix algorithm.