Pugh plays Lib Wright, an English nurse in the year 1862, a year when the mass famine of the 1840s has left scars across the Irish landscape to which she travels. She has been summoned there by a committee looking for answers about a local girl who appears to be a miracle—one that includes arguably underwritten characters played by Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and Brian F. O’Byrne. Nine-year-old Anna O’Donnell (the excellent Kila Lord Cassidy) has not eaten in four months. She claims to subsist only on manna from heaven, and her survival has led to worshippers who want to confer with this potential saint. Her mother Rosaleen (Cassidy’s actual mother Elaine) insists that there is no trickery here, but Lib’s job will be to watch Anna to see if food is somehow being snuck into her bedroom. A journalist named William (Tom Burke) has also traveled there to fuel Lib’s skepticism, and it’s no coincidence that both the writer and the nurse have brought the grief of loss in their baggage.
Lib is constantly being told, “You are only here to watch.” She is the observer, just like us. There are fascinating bookends to this story that arguably reach too far in terms of form but it’s interesting to see a piece that’s about faith and skepticism in equal measure be so directly confrontational with its audience. Naturally, Lib’s instinct begins where most viewers would—doubtful that Anna isn’t eating and then increasingly concerned about her declining physical state. Pugh takes us on the journey with her from skepticism to concern and “The Wonder” becomes a study in empathy and action. How long can we be expected to just “watch” when the life of a child is in danger? How long can we stay inactive when faith is destructive enough to tear communities and families apart?
A drama this ambitious demands a fearless performer like Pugh, who knows exactly the tightrope to walk when it comes to the story’s delicate balance between realism and melodrama. Pugh can’t push the throttle too far into the emotional or risk turning “The Wonder” into a more traditional melodrama, the kind of thing that’s easier to place in a box and walk away. Lelio doesn’t want that. He wants viewers to feel as unsettled as Lib, who becomes increasingly unmoored as she realizes she has either been asked to bear witness to a miracle or the death of a child. Lib’s uncertainty is enhanced by an excellent score by Lelio’s regular composer Matthew Herbert that avoids the lilt common to period pieces in favor of something more uncomfortable. And the phenomenal Ari Wegner (“The Power of the Dog”) shoots the film with a gloomy, gray palette that almost makes it feel like a horror flick.