The Wonder | 2022 Toronto International Film Festival Review

The Wonder |  2022 Toronto International Film Festival Review

Power Surge: Lelio ponders the power and depth in his latest, which attempts to grapple with the nature of the narrative itself

“This is the beginning of a movie called the wonder”, a narrator informs us as the 19th century film surprisingly opens in a contemporary set. The wooden frame of a house is raised on supports, while the meticulously crafted interior of a steamship sits alongside. Recognizing the artifice of the image that we are about to see, the narrator continues saying “we are nothing without stories” and “invites you to believe in this one”. It’s a deep opening to Sebastião Lelio‘s latest, which encourages viewers to keep the mechanics and purpose of storytelling in mind from the start. Unfortunately, Lelio and his writing team don’t engage enough with the concept to realize its full potential.

The film’s surprising introduction, which for a brief moment suggests that Lelio may be making his own dogville, quickly gives way to a standard period film. It’s 1862 and English nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) has arrived in remote central Ireland. Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy), a local girl, has become a tabloid sensation for allegedly going four months without eating a single piece of food. Anna, along with a nun (Josie Walker), was tasked by the town council to spend two weeks watching over the girl to try to uncover the truth behind this so-called miracle.

Of course, truth is a slippery and illusory notion, and it becomes evident that every man on the council seeks a “truth” that furthers his own ends. Dr. McBrearty (Toby Jones) believes that Anna could be the source of a new scientific breakthrough. Meanwhile, the county priest (Ciarin Hinds) certainly wouldn’t care if parishioners continued to believe they had a saint in their community. The fact that the last food she ate was the communion wafer – “manna from heaven” – already gave the incident divine weight. The O’Donnell family may also have their own reasons for the phenomenon to continue, but they’ve made it clear that money isn’t one of them. Any donations they receive from any visitors who stop by the house to admire Anna go straight to the poor box. As far as Lib is concerned, Anna is her patient, and she decides to take care of her, no matter if the facts she learns about the fast upset the town leadership’s intentions. The real story is also an interest shared by William Byrne (Tom Burke), a reporter for the London Daily Telegraph who was sent to get the scoop the world has been waiting for.

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the wonder ends up finding herself at a fascinating and vital intersection that investigates the construction of narratives and how women are used by institutions of power. It’s a themed powder keg waiting to explode, but the screenplay by Lelio, Alice Birch and Emma Donoghue (based on their novel) is always on the verge of really letting it boil. The intriguing nature of the script doesn’t give much more room to breathe. The pulling of strings and the vested interests of the city council are relegated to a few scenes. The antipathy at the time between the Irish and the English, which serves as a significant bias towards Lib’s treatment, is equally mild, despite being explicitly mentioned in the film’s opening narration. And this breaking of the fourth wall and the intonation of God’s voice only reappear at the end of the film with diminishing returns. It seems that somewhere along the way no one really wanted to commit to the part, nor walk away from it. It’s arguable that the film could have blown away the gamble, but again, without this impetus to consider the apparatus of narrative constructions, the straightforward nature of the writing isn’t strong enough to elicit these ideas on its own.

It talks about how good everything else works in the wonder that even an imperfect film is utterly convincing. Pugh is a commanding presence as Lib, his pain and sadness transformed into an unwavering, protective, and single-minded mission to protect Anna. Given the recent tabloid nonsense surrounding her, he’s a welcome reminder of the rich well of talent that launched the actress in the first place. And it remains a mystery how Burke can easily slip into supporting roles as if they were a bespoke fit. The duo gets the job of connecting their headstrong characters and forming an alliance of sorts, a unity around a girl who is so manipulated that her very life is put in danger.

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Director of photography Ari Wegner (the power of the dog, Lady Macbeth) communicates this sense of unshakable solidarity, positioning Lib and William standing like weather-beaten trees in the cold, brittle landscapes of Ireland, or holding in moisture in the film’s arid interiors. As always, Matthew Herbert is flying in from another planet with his score, and here it’s no different with tracks that pulse with hymnal ecstasy. It’s another ingredient, along with the performances, that deepens the script of what’s written on the page.

Why do we want to believe in miracles? Why do we need? These seem like the unasked questions of the wonder those that perhaps just remain below the surface. Even if the film doesn’t maximize its thematic possibilities, Lelio still created another convoluted and captivating entry in his long list of films about women pushing or occupying the fringes of social norms. It may not be a miracle, but it will make you want to believe.

Revised September 13 at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival – Special Presentations. 108 Min.


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