Ciaran Hinds

The Wonder

19/11/22

Netflix

Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder is a little jewel of a novel, a bleak tale seen entirely through the eyes of its main protagonist, Lib. Because the original story is so insular, I wondered if it would be a suitable subject for a film, but director Sebastián Lelio (who co-write the screenplay with Alice Birch) has done a creditable job of opening up the original vision, even throwing in some post-modernist flourishes to accentuate the artifice of the situation. The opening scene depicts a contemporary film studio, complete with lighting rigs and other equipment before the camera pans right and zooms in to the hold of a nineteenth century sailing ship, where Lib (Florence Pugh) is eating a meal. From the very beginning, Leilio seems to be warning us not take everything we see on face value. The Wonder, after all, is also a story of deception.

It’s 1862 and English nurse Lib Wright has been summoned to a remote Irish village to stand watch over the Wonder of the title – eleven year old old Anna O’ Donnell (Kila Lord Cassiday), who, it is claimed, has not eaten a morsel of food in four months and yet remains in apparently perfect health. Lib is understandably sceptical, but the local clergy, led by father Thaddeus (Ciarán Hinds), are keen to claim this as a bona fide miracle, a feather in the cap of the Catholic church. Dr McBrierty (Toby Jones), on the other hand, prefers to see Anna as some bizarre new mutation. Has she developed the ability to photsynthesise? Lib’s task will be to keep a close watch on Anna around the clock, alternating shifts with a nun, Sister Michael (Josie Walker), so that – if there is any secret feeding going on – it will soon come to light.

Lib’s suspicions are shared by newspaper journalist Will Byrne (Tom Burke), who has been despatched to his old stamping ground to investigate the claims, but the truth behind these ‘saintly’ events is well hidden and hard to root out…

The Wonder makes a successful transition from novel to film, largely because of Pugh’s sterling performance in the lead role, as well as through Ari Wegner’s moody cinematography, which somehow contrives to make every frame look like the work of a classic artist – Jan Vermeer perhaps, or Caravaggio. There are also a few moments where Anna’s older sister, Kitty (Niamh Algar), who also serves as the story’s narrator, breaks the fourth wall and addresses the viewer directly. Some may find these touches intrusive but, for me, they are so effective they have me wishing there were more of them and that Algar had a little more to do in the story – she’s a superb actor and this is little more than a supporting role.

Donoghue’s source novel, a scathing criticism of the Catholic faith and the gullibility of its followers, emerges intact – and those who anticipate a headlong plunge into despair should take heart. The film’s conclusion is more positive than you might expect.

4 Stars

Philip Caveney

Justice League

 

24/11/17

After a massive jump in the right direction with Wonder Woman, DC, with director Zack Snyder at the helm, take ten supersteps backwards with Justice League. Where WW was a breezy soufflé packed with humour and cheesy romance, JL takes itself incredibly seriously and this, most of all, is what makes it a terrible thing to behold.

At the start of the film, Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead – don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler – and Batman (Ben Affleck) is feeling the weight of trying to fill those size 11 superhero boots. He’s also rather perturbed by the appearance in Gotham City of some weird winged beasties, which he assumes are of extra terrestrial origin. With this in mind, he sets about assembling a crack team of superheroes with the idea of defending the planet from these new arrivals. The team comprises Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa – for best results just add water), the Flash (Ezra Miller, the film’s best component by a country mile) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a man/machine affair, who appears to have been assembled by committee.

The threat to life as we know it comes from Steppenwolf – not the 70s rock band who recorded Born To Be Wild (who actually weren’t that bad in retrospect), but a great big dude in a horned helmet, voiced by Ciaran Hinds, who – in the best DC tradition – speaks like he’s swallowed a bottle of Rohypnol and who, you just know, would be a really dull drinking companion. He commands the weird winged beasties, The Parademons, who remind me, more than anything else, of the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz. For reasons best known to himself, Steppenwolf is trying to locate three magical boxes in order to bring about the destruction of the world as we know it, ushering in Doomsday. Why? Good question. I guess it’s just what big dudes in horned helmets feel they need to do. But why do they have to be so damned earnest about it?

Inevitably, what it all comes down to is yet another seemingly endless cosmic punch up, brilliantly rendered by the technical team, but incredibly dull and completely lacking in any sense of danger, since everyone involved is seemingly incapable of being seriously injured; even Batman, who we are repeatedly reminded is a mere mortal, seems to survive being thrown though buildings and automobiles without incurring more than a few token bruises. As I mentioned, Miller’s sparky turn as a nervy, possibly autistic young wannabe is the only element that offers any light relief in this maelstrom of misery, but his offerings are too occasional to lift this more than a few centimetres out of the doldrums.

Just when it appears that Steppenwolf is actually getting the upper hand, somebody comes to the aid of the team. Who is it? I’ll give you three guesses.

I know there are many out there who like their DC done with gravitas – and the three Christopher Nolan Batman movies are testament to the fact that it can work in the right hands. But sadly, those hands are not Zach Snyder’s, and this is a turgid, bloated train-wreck of a movie, that will surely have all but the most committed DC diehards turning up their noses.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney