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Sebastián Lelio’s films about women’s suffering and resilience are also comments on cinema itself, and that is made clear – if no less complex and entrancing – thereby The wonder (Nov. 2 in theaters; Nov. 16 on Netflix), the Chilean director’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel of the same name. Co-written with Donoghue and Alice Birch and led by an intense performance by Florence Pugh, Lelio’s 19th-century drama is a multifaceted portrait of storytelling: the way it enlightens and deceives tells us what we want to hear, and perpetuates the myths we’ve wanted to perpetuate, blinding us to the truth while opening our eyes to it. Equally haunting, heartbreaking and empowering, it is a tale of narrative’s ability to transform, destroy, revive, imprison and liberate.

Lelio’s confident interests are evident in the opening moments of The wonder, in which his camera looks to the back of a film set full of scaffolding and other equipment before panning to his actual ship’s interior set, while a narrator (later revealed to be Niamh Algar’s Kitty) announces, “Hello. This is the beginning. The beginning of a movie called The wonder. The people you will meet, the characters, believe in their stories with utter devotion. Without stories we are nothing.” This sentiment is later echoed by more than one character, just as it is reflected in the main plot, which focuses on an English nurse named Lib Wright (Pugh) who went to famine in 1862 Ireland is called to observe a young girl named Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy) who has survived four months without food.

Lib was put in charge of this “watch” by a committee of male community leaders, including the O’Donnell clan parish priest (Ciarán Hinds) and Dr Events are scientific or religious. To that end, these men have hired a nun (Josie Walker) to share custodial duties with Lib, and they all have various reasons for wanting their preferred explanation for Anna’s survival verified. So does Anna’s mother, Rosaleen (Elaine Cassidy), who believes her daughter is honest when she claims her only source of sustenance on this route is “manna from heaven”. However, Lib is unsure if any sacred work is at play, and her concern for Anna grows serious as she spends time with the teenager, though given her diet, Anna appears to be in fantastic shape at first.

While Lib strives to get to the bottom of Anna’s story, The wonder reveals her own, involving a deceased young daughter, a runaway husband, and a vial of an unnamed substance (laudanum?) which, along with an accompanying pinprick in her finger, helps her cope with her grief. Lib convinces herself she’s only there for Anna, but that’s a comforting yarn meant to disguise her private motives, and the tension between professional and personal responsibilities is punctuated by the arrival of William Byrne (Tom Burke), a London journalist in Ireland, even more complicated to write about Anna whom he doesn’t believe and thinks she needs to be rescued by Lib. Like everyone in this saga, William is a victim – and survivor – of a family loss that binds him to Lib, making him a potential vehicle for their second chance at happiness.

The film’s introductory scene isn’t its only meta-gesture; On two consecutive occasions, Kitty addresses the audience directly (“We’re Nothing Without Stories”), while Lib (“They Tell Their Stories”) and William (“She’s an Actress”) further articulate the director’s larger concerns. The wonder is a compendium of altruistic and selfish fiction – about fear and suffering, about damnation and redemption – and professes to be one. As with its predecessor glory and A fantastic woman, Lelio’s latest film is a cinematic exploration of how women want to be – and are – seen in an inherently patriarchal society. As a result, the plot is awash with close-ups of her characters staring at each other and the camera, trying to glean reality from appearances.

The illusory nature of what is seen in life and on screen is embodied in William’s gift to Anna: a thaumatrope, a toy containing a disc with a bird and a cage on either side that, when attached to it by one piece of string is rotated, the two images overlap. Just as the film’s bird motif is echoed by the odd chirps and squawks that underscore Matthew Herbert’s enigmatic score, Williams’ toys address pertinent themes of imprisonment and release—ideas powerfully evoked by Pugh himself in a tour de force of restrained expressiveness. Lib is a woman constrained on all sides, and the actress communicates her misery, as well as her certainties and doubts about Anna, with an impressive aplomb that she appears both in complete control of herself and on the verge of to give in to hasty impulses – which, it turns out, are at once selfless and selfish. Her nuanced twist is a marvel of frustration and despair, confirming her status as one of Hollywood’s brightest lights.

“Her nuanced twist is a marvel of frustration and despair, confirming her status as one of Hollywood’s brightest lights.”

As the object of everyone’s vigilant attention, Lelio equates Anna with the films, a magical phenomenon that is both real and unreal at the same time. Lelio’s trick is to make his grand ideas clear without allowing them to detract from the central mystery of his material; He creates ongoing intrigue from Lib’s investigation into Anna’s bewildering condition. The director taps into an unsettling vein of abandonment and deceit in his stately compositions, laced with fear and anxiety and occasionally held together by dreamy dissolves. He also creates charged connections between the micro and the macro, with Anna’s hunger proving an extension of the Great Famine that, although perhaps technically, continues to plague the country.

A tale of disappearance culminating in rebirth – facilitated by individuals changing their names to fill the roles they desire –The wonder is a historical piece like few others, attuned to historical oppression and anguish, yet inherently modern in form and spirit. It’s quite simply a wonder what can be said of its accomplished director and star.

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