Florence Pugh portrays a hard-nosed nurse thrust into a world of religious zealots in “The Wonder,” a psychological thriller that begins streaming Nov. 16 on Netflix.
Set in 1862 and based on the novel by award-winning author Emma Donoghue, the disturbing new feature follows the story of an 11-year-old Irish girl who claims not to have eaten for four months, surviving on “manna from Heaven” alone.
Pugh is nurse Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, who is hired by village officials to keep watch over young Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy). The girl’s religion-obsessed family, a local physician (Toby Jones) and a skeptical reporter (Tom Burke) fill out the cast of the stomach-churning film. But it is Lib, with her own set of secrets, who keeps the somewhat-sluggish story moving forward.
Young Cassidy (whose real-life mom Elaine Cassidy plays her family’s matriarch in “The Wonder”) has quite the load to carry as Anna. She makes the child’s plight as deeply painful to watch as is called for in the script by Alice Birch and director Sebastián Lelio. The plot eventually moves in an unexpected direction, if one is willing to stomach an especially disturbing second act.
Set against the Irish countryside, the film is beautifully captured by Director of Photography Ari Wegner, who was only the second female cinematographer in Oscar history to be nominated for “The Power of the Dog” last year. The scenery is powerful if not idyllic, given the circumstances of the plot. A very grim and ultimately horrific story, “The Wonder” is a thoughtful exploration of the dangers of extreme religion, and the part love is supposed to play in so-called spirituality. It examines the difference between genuine holy belief and human spectacle, which is ultimately a comforting theme for people of true faith who understand that caring actions are actually essential to the Gospel many only claim to follow.
This message is conveyed almost solely through Pugh. Many of her best roles in her young but already-prolific career have been set in the past, from “Lady Macbeth” to her Oscar-nominated turn redefining Amy March for a new generation in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.” The 19th century seems to suit her, maybe because she resembles an actor from a different time – like her sturdy demeanor belongs in a more stable generation made of tougher stuff than we are.
There is nothing like a nurse to reframe toughness for an audience, and Pugh does so masterfully with Lib, showing Anna and all of us what actual caring looks like, without extreme doctrine or empty words. Her performance as this character is once again a solid center amid a dark, sometimes-slow but mysterious premise.
“The Wonder” begins streaming Wednesday on Netflix.
Featured image: Florence Pugh as Lib Wright in “The Wonder.” Cr. Christopher Barr/Netflix © 2022