Since winning the best International Feature at the oscars for his phenomenal LGBT+ drama A Fantastic Woman, Sebastian Lelio has continued to make interesting work after interesting work. The incredibly moving Disobedience and even an English language remake of his Chilean film Gloria as the Julianne Moore vehicle Gloria Bell. His latest, a period drama about faith and the line between miracles and stories is just as involving.
Adapting the book by Emma Donoghue (Room), The Wonder tells the story of Elizabeth Wright (Florence Pugh) an English nurse tasked with going to a remake Irish town to stand witness to a miracle, a young woman (Kira Lord Cassidy) who has not eaten in four months and yet appears to be neither hungry nor sick.
The film starts off strangely, co-star Niamh Algar waxes lyrical about the nature of storytelling and our basic human need to tell them, while we see a warehouse with sets built. We see the artifice in the story before it begins as Lelio slowly moves his camera round to the set of a ship carrying Pugh to Ireland. At first it appears like an exercise in Brecktian alienation – for those unaware Bertolt Brecht believed that people should be aware of the artifice of theatre, no sets, no props, just people acting in isolation. This could easily be something that Lars Von Trier could handle, his film Manderlay plays on Brecht’s principles.
But this is very quickly discarded for fantastic period detail, and save for one fourth wall break out of the blue, this doesn’t come into play again, which in itself is a shame as a artificial story talking about artifice is interesting enough, especially in a story that concerns the miraculous.
Pugh is as stern as you would expect, not there to puff up the local communities belief that they have a true miracle in their midst. The only person who appears to share in her belief is Tom Burke’s stone-faced journalist William Byrne. The comments on stories and the quest for a good one is nicely underlined by an agnostic journalist who wants nothing more than to talk about the entirely un-miraculous conspiracy the family appear to be propping up.
Around the three leads are some great supporting players – Algar, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and Dermot Crowley all show up but have very little to do as this zeroes in on Pugh, Burke and Cassidy. It’s also not a film high on emotional content before a fairly moving finale.
What makes the film work best is it’s inspection of how people can see miracles in different ways, the miracle of bringing community together, of mending broken hearts, of healing old wounds and that stories are in themselves miracles. This might not suit everyone’s taste as the promise of something a little more explosive is teased throughout.
But what Lelio is more focussed on is a story about stories and how human beings need stories to make sense of their world.