Bringing just a little less drama to the festival than his latest movie made in Cannes, Florence Pugh headlined this Friday’s gala presentation wonderment, a film with a pedigree as exceptional as any other. Directed by Sebastian Lelio who won an Oscar for A fantastic woman and also directed Disobedience, which I personally loved. It was shot by Ari Wegener whose photography for The power of the dog last year was second to none. It is based on a novel by Emma Donoghue whose book Bedroom was adapted into one of my favorite movies of 2015 and the screenplay for that movie was written with Donoghue and Lelio by Alice Birch who scripted Lady Macbeth, one of the first opportunities Florence Pugh had to show us what an exceptional talent she was. With all that plus a cast including not just Pugh but stellar character actors like Tom BurkToby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and Niamh Algar, what storm could deflect this ship from its course?
Um… well, let’s start at the beginning.
Set in 1862, Pugh stars as Elizabeth Wright, a nurse newly arrived from Crimea and more personally traumatized, sent to freshly post-famine Ireland to “watch” a young farmer’s wife who has, it seems, miraculously, passed more than four months. without food without failing or getting sick. Those present are quick to claim a miracle, or a wonderful new scientific phenomenon. Wright is there, along with a nun, to bear witness to the events surrounding young Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy).
Unfortunately, what follows is a relatively crude and laborious science vs. religion melodrama that isn’t half as smart as it seems. I haven’t read the book, but one suspects it’s more of an “airport read,” shall we say? Certainly not the flint drama that Lelio rides it, with a fourth-wall-breaking approach that’s boring at best, unbearably complacent at worst. Yes, it’s there to reflect the main theme of the stories we tell each other and it’s all about the stories, but when the film begins and ends with a step back to reveal the movie studio that it all really takes place on, you better have said something punchy or nuanced enough to be thought about. Something to bring back with you to reality. This is one of the most artificial and undeserved examples of Brechtian alienation that I can remember, and Brechtian alienation is almost always artificial and undeserved, even at the best of times.
The story told is so straightforward, with characters speaking to each other exclusively in garishly obvious literary devices. When the visiting journalist hands the young saint a thaumatrope (one of those spinning wooden discs with the bird on one side and the cage on the other) and she asks “but is the bird in the cage or not?” it was all I could do not to scream “OH, COME ON!” on the screen. There are fragments of trauma, grief, rape, child abuse, colonialism, addiction, sexism, piety, bigotry, but it’s all handled with the same brutal declarative metaphors and no real sense of creativity or purpose. If I was a little religious, I might well be offended by this movie, were it not that everyone seems to get the same condescending treatment, especially the audience.
The thing is, it almost works. Whether wonderment seemed more aware of what a melodramatic farce is so he could have found the right tone for himself, but Lelio plays it so directly and earnestly. Matthew Herbert’s score, which on paper is the best thing about the film, is so intense and dark that it seems to want to force this material into something serious and deep when it really isn’t. not. I don’t know if a looser and more flexible tone, or even just less austere and important could have saved wonderment and turned it into a truly awe-inspiring cinematic work that he clearly believes he is.
I’m not convinced that the material has much to offer, even on paper. The premise is correct but every aspect of the execution is so laborious. It’s crying out to be analyzed and discussed around the table at your next dinner party, but it’s so brainy. There is not a single part of wonderment that I can point fingers and say it’s bad. The cinematography is phenomenal, the actors have all been better elsewhere but they do well. As noted, the score really didn’t need to be that difficult, and the sets and costumes are all on point. It’s just that the overall picture is… would I call it confusing? The story mixes up a lot of themes and ideas in a way that you can get away with in a novel but not really in a 100 minute movie where you can’t get that far in all of them which gives a very grip superficial and generic. on each of them and when the film begins to wade into deeper waters, it comes across as simply exploitative and vapid.
Frankly, wonderment it reminds me a bit don’t worry darling. I can’t take that away from any of the three screenwriters, they can cover their tracks better than Silberman and co. might, but you get the same feeling that a worn story is oversold. For all its faults, don’t worry darling understood that if you are going to be rude, the least you can do is not be dull at the same time.