The very first thing you see in The Wonder, a historical drama set in 19th-century Ireland, is not the rolling green plains of the nation’s countryside. It’s not Dublin’s muddy, sooty streets, nor the dark-lit taverns where bearded men curse and drink ale or the rural family cottage wherein a miracle may or may not be taking place. We’ll get to bask in the splendor of those backdrops soon enough.
No, the first thing this movie shows us is the inside of an enclosed film soundstage. A narrator tells us this is 1862, and we’re on a ship’s heading to the Emerald Isle from England, as a camera eventually glides past mazes of scaffolding and resting klieg lights and slowly zooms in to middle of set that resembles a vintage seafaring vessel’s below-deck quarters. We finally stop on the recognizable face of Florence Pugh, sitting quietly at the end of a wooden dining table. The characters believe in the stories they’ve concocted for themselves, the voiceover says, as we watch a black-bonneted Miss Flo eat. So why should we not believe in the one the filmmakers will show us? There’s no puncturing of an illusion here, because there was never any pretense that this — actors on a shoot, reciting lines and playing pretend — was anything but an illusion to begin with. (The film drops on Netflix on November 16th, after a brief theatrical run in select cities.)
The Wonder quickly pivots to being something closer to a traditional period piece almost immediately after this; the next thing we see is Pugh’s Lib Wright, an English nurse, stalking down some very real-looking (albeit very production-designed) docks. But a gauntlet has already been thrown down from the get-go, and you will find yourself either recoiling from an opening brimming with such blatantly meta claptrap or leaning even further in. It’s possible to forget that first bit entirely if you put your mind to it and simply settle in for some darker, dingier-than-usual Masterpiece Theater melodramatics. But director Sebastián Leilio (A Fantastic Woman) and his cowriter Alice Birch know exactly what they’re doing by placing this peek behind the curtain up front. The gothic-narrative trappings aren’t the medicine, they’re the sugar to help the message go down.
Still with us? Great, let’s go on. Wright has been summoned from London in order to observe a girl suffering from a peculiar predicament. Upon her 11th birthday, Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy) stopped eating. She’s now refused food for four months, but does not seem to be ill, consisting off what she calls “manna from heaven.” Some think the girl has been touched by the hand of God, which has made her a bit of a tourist attraction and the object of fascination for a visiting journalist (The Souvenir‘s Tom Burke). A local committee of doctors, clergymen, and your run-of-the-mill muttonchopped authority figures have asked a nun and Nurse Wright to respectively keep watch over the child. Neither can confer with each other. They must work in separate shifts and see if there’s some sort of rational explanation or indeed a higher power at work.
The more time Wright spends with this pious tween, the deeper the sense that what’s happening has nothing to do with scientific anomalies or divine blessings, and is both simpler and far more complicated than someone could imagine. It may involve a secret, something Wright herself is familiar with; the nurse’s nightly ritual of morphine, pricking her finger with a needle and a pair of knit baby booties suggests a different kind of hushed-up damage. Pugh, of course, is now recognized as one of the most exciting actors working today, even when tiny things like rabid tabloid gossip overshadow the project. But she’s always been well-suited to both a) playing what’s beneath the surface as well as hitting the big dramatic beats, so that you feel that you’re watching two performances at once; and b) fluttery-to-dirty period pieces. Anyone who first discovered Pugh through Little Women — or, to go even further back, in her breakthrough role in William Oldroyd’s amazing Lady Macbeth (2016) — can attest that she has a way of channeling the past.
The Wonder is happy to take advantage of this perk, placing the star in frocks and bonnets while having her righteously bowl through windswept fields and Dickensian-style squalor, head down and shoulders back, in a way that suggests a fury imported from a different century. (This walk is officially known as the Angry Pugh Stride.) But it’s the way she simultaneously plays and inhabits a character, being part coolly observant and part emotionally all-in, that really aids and abets the movie’s aims. Leilo and Co. have given us a U.K. heritage film, familiar in so many ways to all of those films set in rough-hewn, bygone eras. Yet it’s really a movie about stories, those things we tell ourselves to live. Not just live, but survive, and contextualize, and explain both the mysterious and the monstrous.
The whole notion of making up narratives to make sense of the world is what The Wonder wants us to contemplate, and that Brechtian fist-bump of it entering — and, spoiler alert, exiting — by showing us the scene behind the scenes is only the most upfront example. Every character processes their view of the events via a story; the narrator turns out to be a character, casting her eyes at us in a complicit way around the halfway point; Burke’s journalist tells stories for a living in the name of the Fourth Estate, and some of them are even true. It’s not a coincidence that, in order to try and win Anna’s favor, he shows her a thaumatrope, a coin which twirls quickly and works via images that appear to movie thanks to persistence of vision — a primitive example of a medium that will soon become the prime mode of storytelling in the 20th century.
Does all of this sound like some sort chin-scratching-to-head-scratching intellectual exercise to you? No one would blame you if you prefer your gothic-lit tales straight with no meta-chaser. Yet, largely thanks to Pugh, Leilo’s semi-experimental attempt at blending an old-fashioned melodrama with Media Studies 101 commentary never makes you feel like you’re watching something created in a dorm-session smokeout. Pugh knows that stories need protagonists to follow, and she gives you a great one: spiky, sullen, sensitive, enraged, grieving, lustful, loving, nurturing, and not prone to taking prisoners or any shit. And when it’s time for her nurse to make all of the storytelling that has hurt her ward come to end, she does so in an oddly satisfying, if somewhat extended climax. It’s a movie that begins and ends with a wink. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a tear in your eye as well.