Florence Pugh is on a roll. She’s already a Marvel superhero and an Oscar-nominated actress, and has major parts in films directed by the likes of Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan next year. However, she is often at her best in smaller, more personal films; Midsommar and Lady Macbeth to name a couple. The Wonder is no exception. In arguably the best performance of her career, Florence Pugh and director Sebastian Lelio have created something special with The Wonder: a thriller that feels like a fairytale. Aided by Emma Donoghue’s brilliant writing, this adaptation is largely faithful to the source material, with only the opening and closing shots a major departure from the novel.
Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) is an English nurse who, just returning from work as a field nurse in the Crimean War, is hired to travel to Ireland to take care of a young girl. It is only until she reaches Ireland that she finds out why she’s been summoned; 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell has not eaten in four months and it is Wright’s job to watch the girl. It is a shocking revelation for Wright, compounded by the requirement of a nun by the town’s male committee to also watch Anna. This dichotomy of science against faith is central to the film, constantly getting in the way of Nurse Wright’s quest to uncover the truth.
Nurse Wright is the foil of the story, and therefore it is crucial that the actress playing her be on the top of her game; Florence Pugh is undoubtedly the best choice. In moments of silence, she’s a remarkable presence, her face demanding every second of your attention. In moments of dialogue, she’s even better, her stoic and calm voice cutting through any prior sound. However, the biggest surprise of the film is not Pugh, nor the incredible yet underused supporting cast; Kila Lord Cassidy, playing young Anna, is absolutely brilliant. She matches Pugh’s tone effortlessly, her quiet voice often the loudest in the room. An unbroken shot of Cassidy laying on her bed, discussing her past with Pugh, showcases her deftness on camera. Her face melding into tears over the extended shot, she’s in complete control.
The Wonder boasts not only fantastic performances but fantastic visuals as well. The camera seems to match the movement of the actors on-screen, moving smoothly in reptilian fashion only when characters do. Cinematographer Ari Wegner (The Power of the Dog) transforms a normally dull color palette into something more, amping up the mystery of the whole affair with darkened corners and a seemingly bare countryside. The camera rarely leaves this small Irish village, but Wegner seems to always find new ways to make repetitive locations different, enthralling the audience with shots straight out of a 19th-century watercolour.
The Wonder ends as it begins: a shot of a modern studio set, fully breaking the fourth wall. These bookends don’t necessarily add to the film’s experience, but they certainly reminds its’ viewers that this film is ultimately a story, a story of fact vs. fiction, of an exploration of one’s own faith, and a story of how true love can save even the most corrupted souls.