TIFF 2022: The Wonder, With Florence Pugh, Is Utterly Compelling

Powered by the love of movies and a lot of caffeine, we bring you dispatches from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)
TIFF 2022: The Wonder, With Florence Pugh, Is Utterly Compelling

Directed by: Sebastian Lelio
Written by: Alice Birch, Sebastian Lelio
Cast: Florence Pugh, Niamh Algar, Ciarán Hinds

For a film about the (sometimes transporting and evocative, sometimes insidious and frightening) power of stories, The Wonder begins on a startling note of artifice, a defiant shattering of the immersion.

The camera settles on a half-constructed Netflix set and gradually pans to a finished one which shows the interiors of a train in which the opening scene begins. A voiceover urges viewers to believe in the characters and their stories. When it zooms in on Florence Pugh playing an English nurse in 1862 seated inside the compartment, however, it only takes a few seconds for the illusion to take hold. That viewers will be wholly able to invest in this atmospheric, twisty, sumptuously-shot drama, despite its opening curveball only strengthens its argument. As some of the characters steadfastly cling to their devotion to the scriptures over the verifiable weight of science, audiences will no doubt judge them harshly, but what the film asks us to remember is that we’re suspending disbelief too. It’s a sneakily effective way of aligning us — people who are voluntarily buying into one lie — with characters who may or may not be perpetuating some of their own.

Pugh plays Lib Wright, a nurse hired to investigate the incredible case of 11-year-old Irish girl Anna (an innocent Kila Lord Cassidy), whose family says she hasn’t eaten food for the past four months. The local community is convinced Anna is a saint. Lib is more sceptical. Her job is to watch the young girl for the next two weeks, discover if food is being funnelled to her secretly and then present her testimony to a panel. As the film progresses, her initial detachment from the case begins to be complicated by her growing affections for her patient, and her role as a passive observer begins to feel too constrictive for someone who can no longer stand idly by.

Director Sebastian Lelio, adapting Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel of the same name, steadily builds up the contrasts between Anna and Lib. One deprives herself, the other has a healthy appetite, both gastronomic and sexual. When the camera fixates on Anna’s mouth, it’s to document her reciting prayers. When it moves to Lib at the dinner table, the sounds of her chewing and swallowing punctuate the score. Her slow-mounting frustration at the village’s calm acceptance of what is a potentially life-threatening situation gives the film its tension. Pugh is reliably good, her pinched expressions and flinty eyes conveying a painful past that lends credence to her cynicism.

The cinematography walks the fine line between rendering every frame a painting and ever so often, zooming out to make the frames visible, visually reinforcing how trapped by circumstances the characters are. The score utilises jarring thuds, discordant notes and a ghostly echo of voices that sometimes appear to be coming from the inside of Lib’s head. All these stylistic flourishes add to the immensely absorbing atmosphere of a film that delivers the grand revelation(s) to its big question – how has Anna survived this long? – with devastating stillness. Even so, the meditativeness and philosophical underpinnings of the story can’t detract from its furious urgency.

Until the bookending fourth-wall break at the end (not as effective as the first), the film is an utterly magnetic examination of narratives, how they take hold and how ultimately, what gives them their power is whether or not we choose to believe in them. The Wonder, with its ability to compel despite its artifice, proves it can wring belief from even the most hardened of hearts.

The Wonder will release on Netflix later this year.

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