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.
In its moving simplicity, Ikiru is probably my favourite of Akira Kurosawa’s films. Adapting the screenplay 70 years later, Kazuo Ishigura has shifted the setting to London but opted to stay in the same 1950s post-war era. In fact the opening credits could deceive one into thinking that Living was made in the 50s, though it subsequently retains only the antiquated aspect ratio. The period makes sense for Nighy’s particular breed of gentleman civil servant, dutifully slowing down progress (“We can keep it here. It can do no harm.”) and distanced from those with whom he lives by a familial inability to communicate. Ikiru’s themes are all on display: the failure of bureacracy, the search for meaning in life, and the revitalising freedom of being faced with one’s mortality. After receiving his diagnosis, Williams’ ruminations are shown as memories bleeding through from black and white into colour, and he finds the liberation of inebriation brings only exhaustion. Aimee Lou Wood translates the charm she displayed on Sex Education to the big screen as Mr Williams’ youthful colleague who serves as the catalyst for his redemptive work. Her guileless affection serves as a counterpoint to Nighy’s measured performance, a chilly exterior swiftly giving way to a melancholic warmth, and the film’s success is tied to these performances. Living is such a slavishly faithful adaptation that it has little insight to add to its source material and yet — since so many people will balk at watching at a 70-year-old Japanese film — I cannot fault the creation of this British facsimile that is undoubtedly more palatable to a modern Western audience and nearly as beautiful in the same quiet simplicity.
“Beguiling, aren’t you?” Kate is asked early on, and that is an apt description for True Things, with its exclusively female perspective exploring the heady and unsettling experience of being derailed by a toxic relationship. Director Harry Wootliff’s approach is constructed around subjectivism, so we learn very little about Kate’s ex-con lover, only identified as “Blond”. The audience is likely more primed now than when the book was released in 2010 immediately to recognise Blond’s manipulative gaslighting, but Kate is not presented a victim — she has agency in choosing to stay and to pull away, and we know her perspective is unreliable as she uses him to escape her own frustrations. This is clearest as we watch her dance uninhibited in a Spanish nightclub, dancing only for herself, and so we see the dancefloor deserted. Early on, it is achieved through editing, with a week vanishing suddenly since Kate’s life is stagnant when separated from Blond, which is why she finds herself returning to him. Its depiction of female lust is appropriately devoid of the male gaze — both the director and cinematographer are women — instead capturing subjectively intimate moments. Shot in the Academy ratio, the close-cropped square frame is at first claustrophobic but its shifting focus reflects Kate’s own headspace, without the distraction of elements in the wider frame. True Things contains a multitude of wonderful subtleties, carried by Ruth Wilson’s understated realism, which makes its lack of substance all the more frustrating. Wootliff plainly wants the viewer to insert their own experiences but that makes what is actually present more ephemeral.