Sebastian Lelio’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel is a character study of a Nightingale nurse hired by a remote Irish village to observe a child who has apparently survived for months without eating. At first The Wonder seems set up for a confrontation between rationality and religion, Florence Pugh’s Lib Wright dismissing the claim outright as impossible whilst the committee that hired her have various vested interests in the apparent miracle, be it scientific or religious. In fact, the film is more about the risk of unshakeable certainty (whatever its source) rather than the flexibility that makes communal life possible. Lelio chooses to open the film with a bold Brechtian alienation device (inspired by Goddard’s opening to Le Mepris), drawing the audience’s attention not only to the fact that this is a story, but also that it is about stories — specifically the the fictions small and large which drive us, and the selective facts we choose to craft the story of our identity. Pugh is wonderful as the nurse, initially assured in her knowledge but uncomfortable as an outsider, these facets of her performance becoming inverted the more time she spends around the mistrustful villagers (“What right does a stranger have to come between a child and its people?” she is scolded). The Wonder features a seasoned supporting cast, though only consummate character actor Toby Jones stands out as the village physician. With a limited and straightforward plot, ultimately one’s view of the film will depend on one’s appreciation for the meta-narrative around the power and necessity of stories in our lives, as Lib discovers both the danger and utility of belief in such tales.
“All they ask of us is to stay here. Where it’s safe.”
After the excellent Booksmart, I had high hopes for Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial outing. Sadly, despite its panache, Don’t Worry Darling proves to be a shallow and often repetitive thriller that believes itself to be smarter than it is. The setup is a suitably surreal take on 1960s American suburbia where, like The Stepford Wives, something is palpably wrong. The leads’ idyllic relationship, with excellent performances from Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, is the film’s strength, Wilde’s direction providing eroticism through touch rather than nudity. As Alice becomes increasingly unsettled, the sound mix buzzes around uncomfortably like an insect, reflecting her mental state. Reflections are also a neat visual flourish, with several occasions where mirrors act impossibly. Third act twists are dangerous as they risk alienating an audience and Don’t Worry Darling manages the double sin of being entirely obvious with half of its conceit and entirely out of leftfield with the other. The result is an unsatisfying and disjointed reveal that leaves too little time to explore its ramifications. Chris Pine’s antagonist is overtly based on Jordan Peterson, particularly his obsession with order and chaos, and natural heirarchies, yet the film is content to make this allusion without attempting to debunk or even engage with his ideas. This is the film’s ultimate failure, which is that it never delves beneath the surface in any of its ideas, from cult programming to traditional gender roles to the broader concepts like satisfaction with our reality. There is far more to be gleaned from films with lesser ambitions like The Master or Martha Marcy Mae Marlene.
Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.
“I resent this idea that we’re just emotional. This is real.”
Carol Morley’s drama about an apparent mass hysteria event at a strict girls’ school following a tragedy is written with a fluid structure that explores a range of themes. Florence Pugh shows immediate promise in her acting debut, though this is really Maisie Williams’ film as the troubled Lydia who struggles both for attention and support. The primary focus is how a school so focused on discipline is ill-equipped to provide proper care for its pupils in crisis. Lydia’s home life offers scant respite, with a neglectful and neurotic mother and no father. Her older brother steps in as a confusing surrogate; the two are close because they have no one else as well as through shared grief, but their relationship’s unsettling progression into something incestuous works better as an implication than appearing on-screen. The Falling provides best catharsis in Lydia’s relationship with her mother as family truths are revealed. By contrast, much of what happens in the school remains deliberately obtuse, with rapidfire interstitial imagery referencing the occult and past memories. Some of the best character insight is provided through brief personal moments with side characters — these are clear in their intention and unhindered by the messiness of the main narrative. However, none of the narrative shortcomings make this dreamy experience in 1969 any less captivating.
“I’ve lived a lot of lives… but I’m done running from my past.”
The first two thirds of Black Widow is a taut globetrotting espionage action movie that explores the character’s secretive past and her childhood family as part of a Russian sleeper cell. Highlights include a tense escape sequence through city traffic with her sister, a Siberian jailbreak, and an incredibly awkward family reunion. Unfortunately the final act falls into formulaic Marvel action territory with a weak villain that all swiftly becomes tedious and leaves an underwhelming overall impression. Black Widow also suffers from being released many years too late. In 2019, I said it was a shame for Captain Marvel only to arrive once fatigue with the Marvel formula was setting in. In 2021, not only has Black Widow already been killed off in the mainline franchise, but — with key actors bowing out after Endgame — we don’t even see Scarlett Johansson’s easygoing chemistry with her Avengers co-stars, just repeated name dropping. Johansson is still the film’s greatest asset, deftly switching between strength and suppressed vulnerability. She is ably supported by the two new character introductions — Florence Pugh as Natasha’s assassin sister and David Harbour as the bombastic Red Guardian — but this attempt to flesh out Black Widow’s backstory now is too little and too late for a character that the MCU has never treated as well as she deserves.
“I suppose marriage has always been an economic proposition. Even in fiction.”
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Alcott’s classic novel blends a wonderful cast with modern feminist sensibilities. Where Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version was a direct translation of the novel, Gerwig is more ambitious in her approach. The most obvious change is choosing to tell story out of order, creating a meta narrative in the way scenes are juxtaposed. Introducing the women as young adults also reduces the inclination to infantilise them as children. It works best for those already familiar with the material as the chronology can feel slightly disjointed. Hearing of Laurie’s failed proposal at the start also robs the scene of any power when it finally arrives late in the film, but it also alters the way one views his childhood relationship with the girls. The key casting is Soirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet (both of whom starred in Gerwig’s Lady Bird). Ronan makes Jo’s proud wilfulness overtly dislikable in some scenes, trusting that we will come to understand her as the film proceeds. Meanwhile, Chalamet’s Laurie is both charming and brusque, with nuanced variation to his relationships with each of the sisters. The ambiguous ending, seemingly introduced by Gerwig as something of a critique, may offend purists, but it is entirely fitting for this adaptation.