The very bare bones of sound, image, a dolly shot, and a voice that come to set the stage. Then all of a sudden, a screen will take its audience to the middle of the ocean, or flying like a kite above a beach. It’s the way Fellini casts a spell, as if he’s right by your side, with two hands framing the world before you, “Here, let me show you this story.”
In The Wonder, Sebastián Lelio pulls us in and takes us out this way, through a whisper and a suggestion as a guide to experience. It’s a stark wall, but look at it long enough, a mysterious picture unravels.
Lib (Florence Pugh) is an English nurse, brought to Ireland by a committee of men to observe Anna, (Kíla Lord Cassidy), a young girl who miraculously has been fasting for over four months. While the girl claims she has only eaten “manna from heaven,” the committee wants to know what that “manna” is. One of the men even speculates that she could be harvesting solar energy as plants do. Punctilious Lib, science-minded, dismisses these claims and keeps her watch based on concrete evidence. The girl’s family are incredibly protective of her, despite allowing pilgrimages into the home to visit Anna privately, taking only donations for the local church’s poor box. They watch Lib with distrust. Lib suspects all and slowly puts their world to the test.
Most of the movie takes place in a handful of settings, concentrating on moments of contrast. Anna exists almost exclusively in a dark upstairs bedroom (except for walks Lib takes her on for fresh air), enraptured by a deep devotion to God. In turn, Lizzie, when a village nun takes over her duties, stays in a noisy pub hotel, eating hearty bowls of hot nourishing meals with relish. She is a woman with earthy preoccupations, unflinching in her dedication to the truth. She’s an old-timey detective with a heart. Pugh’s acting strength is used to its fullest extent (she has never ever called in a performance), making us feel real horror in the face of an incredibly vulnerable situation. The viewer’s world becomes unhinged, untenable, and while the suspense is palpable, there’s relief in the film’s flawless transitions, as if the reader doesn’t even need to turn the page, instead, takes a much needed breath instead.
Based on Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name, Lelio’s adaptation (with Donoghue’s contribution to the screenplay), captures the book’s constant thread of tension and uses it as an investigation into the viewer’s “faith” for cinema. Ari Wegner‘s cinematography emphasizes the horror textures of the book. Beautiful blue green expanses swallow up characters, and indoor scenes are filled with dark corners where basement monsters might dwell. But are there monsters? Is there an untruth here? Lelio’s camera entrances the viewer and without warning, the fourth wall is occasionally broken. Is it to check in on the audience? Is this a jump scare? As you watch this film, it becomes your thriller to relate, to parse, to discuss, even though it is fantasy, in a world that is very far away. Can you believe what you are seeing? The characters are flesh and bone.
There is no Fellini reveal about a dream film, and no random rhino’s here. Lelio waves a wand and stabs upwards, creating revelatory cracks in a virtual sky.
The Wonder is currently streaming on Netflix.