Yet more quality-by-the yard, Netflix streaming fare, this time in the form of a woke-AF anti-religious melodrama from director Sebastián Lelio. The Wonder is an adaptation from a book by Emma Donoghue, which itself takes inspiration from cases like that of Sarah Jacob, a young Welsh girl who went without food for long periods in what some locals considered to be a religious miracle and proof of God’s existence, actions now reframed here as child neglect or abuse. The story is transplanted to Ireland, and we see events through the eyes of a practical nurse Lib Wright, played by gal-of-the-moment, Don’t Worry Darling’s Florence Pugh.
An English voice-of-reason who can see right through the murky, boggy locals, Wright has served in the Crimean War, and arrives in Ireland circa 1862 alongside a nun to watch over Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy), who does not seem to take in any food at all, but is still healthy enough to walk and talk; she claims that the old sustenance she needs in ‘manna from heaven’ as provided by her mother. The local patriarchy (Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, the usual suspects) seem keen to authenticate Anna’s situation as a miracle, and Lib’s religious counterpart sees no reason to doubt Anna’s story. Lib, however, smells a rat, and begins to consider that Anna may have been abused in the past, and that this abuse may still be continuing unless she can find a way to expose it…
There’s the germ of a good story there, but The Wonder makes a hash of things from the get-go by rabidly exposing falsehoods, not in the story itself, but in the way that the film-makers are choosing to tell the story to us. So we start on a modern soundstage, with lights, gels and a built studio-set of Anna’s home, and a narrator setting the scene by addressing the audience as if they were presenting Blue Peter. “Hello…’ This device turns up regularly to stop any developing sense of realism in its tracks before returning for the final coda, an unwelcome dash of pretention that deflates the whole story. A regular first-team pick in the battle against all past and present patriarchies, Pugh does her best to raise the intensity, but stock characters like dashing reporter William Byrne (Tom Burke), with whom Lib has an anachronistically modern sexual tryst, keep letting the credibility of the enterprise down. The Irish historical setting is handled without much insight or sensitivity, they’re all just rolling around in the dirt waiting for the English to tell them how to live.
Ultimately, The Wonder has a lot less story than it needs for nearly two hours, and shovels in some banal philosophical window-dressing to pass the time on the way to a happy ending that brushes sexual abuse, rape and grief under the carpet via some ridiculous narrative contrivance. But the lack of depth is the real problem here; Lib has lost a child, but seems to immediately take to Anna as if substituting a stranger for her child’s death was a straightforward like-for-like no brainer that ticks boxes for all concerned. The Wonder is an unusual story that may well intrigue, but despite Pugh’s heroic efforts, pivots to an absurdly feel-good conclusion that’s facile and insulting.