I haven’t been the biggest fan of Netflix’s attempts at “prestige” pictures, movies rolled out late in the year with a whiff of “Let’s throw some money at big names and see if we can get an Oscar” about them.
But “The Wonder” is a winner.
A period piece mystery based on an Emma Donaghue novel and starring Florence Pugh, Tom Burke, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and Irish “It” girl Niamh Algar, it’s a parable of Catholic Ireland given a mod, fourth-wall breaking framework by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, who gave us “Gloria.” He and his players make it not just vividly period-real, but bracing entertainment as well.
It’s a post-potato famine tale of a Crimean War veteran English nurse (Pugh) who has been hired out to bring her Florence Nightingale-trained expertise to “watch” a rural Irish lass who seems to be living without the benefit of eating.
A reporter (Burke) there to cover the “miracle” may label Mrs. Lib Wright “the nightingale who’s come to watch over” this supernatural event, and verify it. But Lib is pretty irked when she figures out the parameters of her duties.
“What kind of backwoods village imports a professional nurse for something like this?”
The locals are unmoved. A council consisting of the doctor (Jones), priest (Hinds) and two local powers-that-be (Dermot Crowley and Brian F. O’Byrne) are hellbent on proving or disproving this miracle, with each having his own agenda, we fear. The doctor, for instance, is all about wacky theories about the child living on “magnetism” or perhaps she’s mastered what he doesn’t know to call photosynthesis. The priest? He’s ready to notify the Vatican that there’s an Irish miracle and future saint at work here.
The nine-year-old girl Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy) just speaks of heaven, hell, purgatory and her diet — “manna from heaven” — which is no help to the nurse.
A nun (Josie Walker) has come to split the “watch little Anna” duty. But with Catholic fanaticism all around her, Nurse Lib can’t be sure of her reliability. Only the cynical, locally-born journalist, returned from London, seems as skeptical as Lib. And he doesn’t care. Not really. He just wants a scoop.
Director/co-writer Lelio’s most obvious clever touch is to set this tale within the realm of storytelling and “stories.” We’re introduced to this world as a set on a steel-walled warehouse soundstage, watching Pugh settle in for the (faked) sea passage to Ireland in 1862 as our narrator (Algar, of “The Last Right”) tells how much these actors “believe in their story,” something she revisits as an older sister to little Anna.
It’s not just actors who love stories, she tells us. The entire Irish people do.
Set on a treeless Samuel Beckett Irish wasteland of mud and turf, “The Wonder” embraces its classification as both a mystery and a parable. The suspicious outsider is pitted against the superstitious locals, who must have summoned an English nurse because they want her to tell her what they want to hear, that this new tourist attraction is heavenly in origin.
Our nurse has issues and secrets. So does the family she’s watching, as does the reporter with local ties. There’s more on the table here than Catholic mysticism and belief and acts of atonement.
Pugh is a gifted actress with a big career ahead of her. But there’s no getting around how naturally convincing she is in period pieces from the age of bustles and hair worn in prim, tight buns. It shouldn’t limit her any more than it painted Carey Mulligan, Kate Winslet or Jennifer Ehle into a corner. Still, there’s something to “This is where she lives” in her work in films like this. The emotions are naturally contained, and so much about her says “period piece” that she thrives in such settings.
Burke has been around for years and with “Mank,” “Living” and this film, is just starting to make his mark. There are traces of every period piece journalist (think “Inherit the Wind”) in this sneering hack.
Jones, Hinds, Crowley and O’Byrne are welcome icing on any Irish-set film, period piece or not.
There are limits to how much mystery one can wring out of a story like this, and “parable” is a nail you should only pound so far. But watching “The Wonder” I can’t help but wonder if Netflix is coming out of the stupor that had them writing blank checks to Alfonso Cuaron (“Roma”), Fincher (“Mank”) or Scorsese (“The Irishman”) when they could have been underwriting talent that won’t break the bank with their indulgences, and can deliver awards-worthy entertainments like this.
Rating: R, sex, adult subject matter.
Cast: Florence Pugh, Tom Burke, Kíla Lord Cassidy, Elaine Cassidy, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Josie Walker and Niamh Algar
Credits: Directed by Sebastián Lelio, scripted by Sebastián Lelio and Alice Birch , based on a novel by Emma Donoghue. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:49