Some of the most thought-provoking and moving films stir our thoughts and feelings because they engage us, and we become so invested in the feature that we forget where we are. Sometimes this comes down to the belief we have in what we are watching. It is something Sebastián Lelio directly asks of the audience in the opening of his new film, The Wonder. As the camera pans across a present-day film studio, the voice of Niamh Algar says; “Hello. This is the beginning. The beginning of a film called The Wonder. The people you’re about to meet are characters. Believe in their stories with complete devotion. We are nothing without stories, and so we invite you to believe in this one.”
The story of The Wonder begins with Elizabeth (Florence Pugh), an English nurse who served in the Crimean War of the 1850s, making her way to rural Ireland at the request of some council dignitaries in a small community. They ask Elizabeth to watch Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), a nine-year-old girl who has been allegedly fasting for the past four months. Elizabeth questions the simplicity of the task but agrees to it because she is intrigued by the situation, even though she doubts its plausibility. As the story of The Wonder unfolds, the audience begins to question the credibility of the circumstances. They start to wonder if there is a logical explanation for it.
For the majority of the film, The Wonder engages its audience. The period production design and costumes by Grant Montgomery and Odile Dicks-Mireaux may look conventional on the face of it for a period drama, though the choice of understated colours does not distract from the main focal aspects. Interior scenes are often dimly lit, with lighting that always focuses on what matters while appearing natural. The score by Matthew Herbert is also simple but effective, with noises that sound like whale calls that are simultaneously serene but gently alarming. However, the performance of Pugh helps the audience become invested in The Wonder the most. Little did I think when I wrote my first review on her breakout role in Lady Macbeth that she would rise to stardom so quickly. In the film, she is nuanced, like many aspects of it, but shows great maturity in her screen presence that she perfectly acts as the window into the world and story for the audience.
The Wonder is captivating. However, the film’s shortcoming is that it goes to great effort to create a mystery from the plot, but does not remain ambiguous when it draws to its end and allow the audience decide the truth. Instead, the final act and the resolution it gives undoes all the great effort made to create intrigue, and the audience might feel let down when the credits roll.