Sebastian Leilio

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

Loveless

20/03/18

This powerful, brooding film by director Andrei Zvyagintsev (who also gave us the equally compelling Leviathan in 2014) offers a melancholic slice of life in contemporary Russia. A nominee for this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, it eventually lost out to Sebastian Leilio’s A Fantastic Woman, but it’s nonetheless a superb drama that deserves wide acclaim.

Loveless focuses on a couple going through the throes of a messy divorce. Boris (Alexi Rozin) is an office worker, whose deeply religious boss is opposed to any kind of marital discord. This means that Boris has to keep his impending break-up a close secret around the workplace. He has already found himself a naïve young girlfriend, Masha (Marina Vasileva), has got her pregnant and is planning to set up a new life with her – but, for the moment, he’s still sharing the family home with his wife, Zhenya (Marian Spivack). Mind you, she’s not blameless in all this, because she too is embroiled in a passionate affair with widower, Anton (Andress Keiss), and is intent on ensnaring the man she sees as her best hope of escape from drudgery. Both Anton and Zhenya are completely focused on their respective futures – so much so that it is all they can think about.

The problem is, they have a 12 year old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), who regularly witnesses their bitter arguments and even overhears them trying to fob responsibility for him onto each other. A scene that cuts from a bitter marital dispute to Alyosha – in the darkness of his bedroom, face contorted in an agony of misery – is utterly heartbreaking. Neither Boris nor Zhenya seems to be aware of his unhappiness – indeed, they barely notice him at all, until, inevitably, he goes missing. The resulting search means the two of them have to grudgingly work together alongside the highly motivated volunteer group that has been recruited for the task.

In a Hollywood version of this story, of course, the two protagonists would no doubt develop new respect for each other; they would discover hidden strengths that they never knew existed; they might even end up deciding to stay together. But in Zvyagintsev’s abrasive world-view, there is no redemption. The couple are enslaved by their own mutual loathing and bitter resentment. They go about the search for their son as though it is some kind of thankless chore, an annoying box to be ticked. A visit to Zhenya’s secretive mother on the suspicion that Alyosha may be hiding out with her amply demonstrates that the roots of such selfishness run deep. She too seems unable to exhibit any kind of concern for the missing child, preferring instead to complain about the way she has been treated by her daughter and the man she never wanted her to marry in the first place.

Aloysha’s unseen presence dominates the remainder of the film. It is there in the deserted buildings the search team visit; it is there in the sterile winter landscapes through which they trudge. It would, of course, be wrong to reveal how the search for him turns out, but suffice to say that a brilliantly constructed coda displays all too effectively how hopeless and myopic his parents’ dreams of bright new futures are. In this story,  selfishness is all-pervading and parents will always put their own aspirations above those of their off-spring.

A word of warning. This is not the film to watch if you are seeking a cheery and relaxing  night at the cinema. If on the other hand, you enjoy a deep, harrowing drama that claws relentlessly at the emotions, it’s certainly one to check out.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney