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Florence Pugh Watches Over A Miracle

Jan 8, 2023

TELLURIDE – At this point in his career, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio continues to veer toward slightly unexpected choices. He broke through the global cinephile consciousness with 2013’s “Gloria,” a crowd-pleaser about a fiftysomething woman trying to find love in the discos of Santiago. He then tackled the story of a transwoman dealing with her boyfriend’s passing in “A Fantastic Woman.” That near masterpiece won him the Oscar for International Film, among other accolades, and made him an auteur you couldn’t ignore. Another surprising selection was “Disobedience,” a lesbian love affair set in a Jewish Orthodox community in London. And quizzically, he ended up directing an almost shot-for-shot English-language remake of the aforementioned “Gloria” this time starring Julianne Moore. Not what you’d expect. With that sort of career, it begs the question, what exactly drew him to “The Wonder,” a somewhat predictable period piece that just debuted at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival?
READ MORE: 12 must-see films to watch at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival
An adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name, the Netflix release follows Lib (Florence Pugh), an English nurse hired by a small Irish village in 1862 to watch over a mysterious young girl. The girl in question, the “glowing” Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), has gained attention for somehow having survived for four months without eating. With locals calling her a miracle, a council of town elders has assigned Lib and a nun to chronicle the girl’s actions and keep watch on her for a fortnight. Their work will determine the validity of Anna and her parent’s claims that their daughter has not secretly been receiving nourishment.
Lib’s assignment is complicated by a local doctor who seems to view Anna as a petri dish for his own scientific theories (Toby Jones), a mother who seems more enamored with her daughter’s potential divinity than her health (Elaine Cassidy, Kíla Lord’s real mother), and an overly friendly London journalist whose methods are more than intrusive (Tom Burke). Then, there is Anna who, despite Lib’s quick summation that it’s all some sort of scam, inevitably charms her new nurse. And, of course, we quickly discover that Lib has her own personal demons to deal with.
Considering Lelio’s involvement, what’s strange about the film is how little it wants to dive into its subject matter. It has little to say about the dangers of faith and any commentary on Anna’s position as a woman of this era (trying to stand as an equal alongside a council of old men, no less) is sort of obvious and not inherent to the story. When the twist comes (and you know a twist is coming) it’s simply not that much of one. The proceedings all feel too familiar than they should, and the only real suspense comes in Anna’s eventual fate.
Outside of Ari Wegner’s lush cinematography, the most compelling aspects of “The Wonder” are the performances of Pugh and Cassidy, with the latter stealing the show from her more heralded co-star. Pugh is always riveting in whatever she does (she managed to steal an entire Marvel Studios series with one monologue in the forgettable “Hawkeye”), but it’s Cassidy that keeps your attention. This isn’t the first significant role for the 12-year-old actress and yet it’s the one that will have critics and other filmmakers taking notice. Cassidy makes you believe Anna is committed to her sainthood, even when she shouldn’t. It’s an exquisite performance for a young actor where so much of the tension in the film hinges on it.
Again, Pugh is quite good, but when isn’t she at this point? And frankly, it’s somewhat refreshing to find her in a part where she’s the protagonist from the beginning. Despite her character’s troubles, you never doubt she’s driving the narrative and will succeed as the story’s hero (or maybe not).
As always, Lelio has a way with his actors. Nothing will ever feel forced. Even the most melodramatic stakes will feel grounded. And yet, despite a pointless framing device the film simply does not need, it’s missing some of the visual magic of his earlier films. That’s not to say the production doesn’t look compelling. You’d have to detest the rolling and rich green hills of Ireland to not appreciate what’s on screen. The result just feels a wee bit familiar. And as you watch it you begin to wonder, for a filmmaker who has consistently embraced challenges what was the challenge here exactly? [B-/C+]
“The Wonder” will launch on Netflix later this year.
Follow along with all our coverage of the 2022 Telluride Film Festival.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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