The Wonder at the BFI London Film Festival film review: Florence Pugh is her own wonder in this tense tale

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Lorence Pugh’s game is the miracle we take for granted. It will come as no surprise, then, if the 26-year-old Briton dominates this adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s subversive gothic novel with a sensual, alert and increasingly heartbreaking performance.

That – along with typically atmospheric cinematography from Ari Wegner of The Power of the Dog, a chilling score from Matthew Herbert, and the bold decisions made by Chilean director Sebastian Lelio – more than make up for the script’s flaws.

The Wonder is bound to be controversial and definitely takes a steamy turn in the second half; but trust the Lelio team.

Like Room, Lenny Abrahamson’s Oscar-nominated take on Donoghue’s most famous book, this creepy yet claustrophobic project tackles transgressive sex and shows a mother and child trapped in a life-threatening situation. This time, however, the mother may be part of the problem, and the child is more than happy to die.

The year is 1862, and Pugh is Yorkshire nurse Libby Wright, sent to a remote pocket of Ireland to watch over (some would say spy on) a devout 11-year-old Catholic, Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy). The latter has not eaten a bite for four months, but remains perky.

Some in the village, as well as a journalist William (Tom Burke) of the Irish Times, believe that the dishonesty of Anna’s family could explain this “miracle”. What will happen to Anna when she’s kept away from her proud and lovely mom (the amazing Elaine Cassidy, Kíla’s real mom)?

Florence Pugh as Lib Wright, Kila Lord Cassidy as Anna O’Donnell

/ AIDAN MONAGHAN/NETFLIX

Pugh has always had fabulous chemistry with younger co-stars. Remember the sunny scene in Lady Macbeth, where Pugh’s ruthless and traumatized bride suddenly becomes tender and joking with a little boy named Teddy? (she later orders her boyfriend to smother Teddy but, hey, we believe in sweetness while it lasts).

In Don’t Worry Darling, too, it was obvious that her character was such a hug magnet for two friendly toddlers. Pugh is an expert at playing wary protagonists who unfold in the presence of children.

Kíla Cassidy enjoys all that attention, but brings her own bubbly, quirky energy to the table. The couple’s scenes, even the most poignant ones (I gasped out loud when Lib finds something awful in Anna’s mouth), are a delight.

In fact, there’s not a single crap trick here. Niamh Algar is magnetic as Kitty, O’Donnell’s chippy and observant servant, who grew up with William and resents the fact that he now thinks of her as an irrational, blind fool.

So it’s too bad for what happens next, which dissipates much of the Turn of the Screw-style tension that everyone involved helped create. Nor are things helped by a crude plot regarding Lib’s opium habit (an addiction that is cured overnight). None of this is in the book. Donoghue, who co-wrote the screenplay with Alice Birch of Lelio and Lady Macbeth, over-egged his own pudding.

Fortunately, Lelio puts things back on track with a denouement that makes good use of Algar’s powerful voice and forces the audience to question their own blind spots. If you took from The Wonder that Lib is ‘right’ and Irish Catholics are ‘wrong’, you’ve completely missed the point and need to rewatch Lelio’s best film since 2013’s Gloria.

103 minutes

The Wonder will screen at the BFI London Film Festival tonight, Saturday October 8 and Sunday October; it’s in select theaters from November 2 and on Netflix from November 16

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