Florence Pugh gives another scorching performance in The Wonder. It comes on the heels of her Oscar-nominated work in Little Women, along with stellar turns in Fighting with My Family, Don't Worry Darling, and especially Midsommar. (She even stole Black Widow out from under Scarlett Johansson. Not an easy feat.) Anyone paying attention already knows Pugh is one of the brightest lights in the business right now. This new film solidifies that status even further.
The story is set in the Irish Midlands, in 1862. Pugh plays Lib Wright, a nurse hired to come into a small village to observe 11-year-old Anna O'Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy). Anna has not eaten in months, to no discernable effect. Local leaders, including clergyman Father Thaddeus (Ciarán Hinds) and physician Dr. McBrearty (Toby Jones), want to know how this is possible. A couple of them think she's somehow sneaking food. Others believe she might be a living miracle, blessed by God. Lib forms a bond with the girl, yet finds herself increasingly unpopular with the very people who brought her in. Everyone, it seems, has a narrative they want to be true, putting the nurse in the middle of a science-vs-religion battle.
The Wonder works on two different levels. In one sense, the film is an effective thriller. Like the characters, we wonder how Anna has been able to live without food for such a long period of time. Lib serves as a detective, looking for clues that we eagerly devour. At the other level, it succeeds in being intellectually exciting by depicting the often uneasy coexistence of people who believe there's a logical explanation for everything and those who want to attribute difficult-to-explain phenomena to the work of a higher power. Those halves are brought together through Lib, who tries to be impartial amid pressure to choose one side or the other.
It's a tricky role. Unsurprisingly, Pugh nails it. She does a smart thing, which is to emphasize the character's determination. Lib is intent on doing what she was brought in to do, and nothing is going to impede that. Over time, her interest in getting answers becomes as much personal as professional, because she's concerned about Anna's well-being. The actress is nicely understated in the role, conveying the force of Lib's personality through facial expressions and body language, rather than via over-emoting. Pugh additionally gets across the idea that Lib has her own issues. When the nurse has an abrupt fling with a journalist (Tom Burke) looking to write a story about Anna, we understand why, without needing it explicitly explained to us. Her vulnerabilities are clear.
Director Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) gives The Wonder a methodical pace, allowing the mystery of Anna's condition to simmer. You also have to love how he intermittently lingers on shots of people -- especially Lib -- eating, just to underline the core dilemma. Because Lelio lays the groundwork so carefully, the dramatic place the story goes to at the end hits powerfully. Outstanding production design and location use go a long way toward helping him plunge viewers into the tale.
The Wonder is a slow-burn kind of picture that builds to an explosive ending. With Florence Pugh's nuanced performance at the center, its themes achieve real weight. The resolution of the mystery is satisfying. The implications of it will stick with you afterward.
out of four
The Wonder is rated R for some sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.