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Review: Florence Pugh's talent is clear, but 'The Wonder' is no fun at all

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Florence Pugh and Kila Lord Cassidy in “The Wonder.” Picture: Aidan Monaghan/Netflix

When you’re making a movie, it’s possible to know that you’re doing it right, that it’s coming out the way you intended. The performances are good, the tone is precise. All the technical aspects are going well.

But there’s something much harder to know: Was it worth making? It’s possible to make a movie as well as you can make it — as well anyone could have made it — and have it turn out to be not worth making at all.

That’s the sad case of “The Wonder.”

The latest film from Sebastian Lelio (“Gloria,” “Gloria Bell”) is well-written, scene by scene. It has a strong cast, led by Florence Pugh (“Don’t Worry Darling”), who is flawless as a stern but inwardly troubled nurse in the 19th century. Lelio builds an odd mood from the first shot, in which we see a film set, while a voiceover reminds us that we’re seeing artifice, that this is make believe. I don’t know why that’s there, but it’s interesting.

But the movie that follows is unappealing and grim. There’s a mystery at the heart of the story, but not a compelling mystery. It takes an act of will to keep watching, and by the end, will-power doesn’t pay off. “The Wonder” feels like a well-made, artistically sound and highly intelligent pointless exercise.

It’s based on an Emma Donoghue novel that should have stayed a novel, about a community in Ireland reacting to a strange phenomenon. It’s 1862, and 11-year-old Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy) hasn’t eaten a bit of food in four months, and yet she’s apparently well, surviving, she says, on “manna from heaven.”

The town’s leaders think they may have a miracle on their hands, but wanting to be sure, they bring in “watchers” to stay with the girl around the clock and confirm that she really isn’t eating. One of these watchers is Lib (Pugh), a widowed nurse from England whose infant child has died recently.

Kila Lord Cassidy in “The Wonder.” Picture: Aidan Monaghan/Netflix

Throughout the first half of “The Wonder,” the big question is whether this is some kind of trick. Is the girl faking it or is she the real thing? Lelio plays it right down the middle, reinforcing an unsettled mood with a modernist, dissonant soundscape that makes every variety of weirdness — from divine intervention to deceit — seem possible. Certainly, there is something resonant in the idea of ​​an Irish girl needing food, when you consider that 1862 was just a decade removed from the potato famine.

But “The Wonder” is no fun at all. It’s not even fun in the way it’s not fun. Even for a movie about starvation, it’s not a nourishing experience. The more the audience finds out about what’s actually going on, the less compelling the movie becomes.

Pugh, with a quality of authority well beyond years, is like the second coming of Kate Winslet, which seems especially generous, as Winslet still walks among us. You can’t have enough Kate Winslets — or apparently, Florence Pughs — in circulation, so, if you want to make it through “The Wonder,” you can do what I did and just concentrate on her.

But forcing yourself to watch movies until the end isn’t your job, is it? So there’s no reason for you to sit through a film that feels like work and that leaves you with very little.

L“The Wonder”: Drama. Starring Florence Pugh and Kila Lord Cassidy. Directed by Sebastian Lelio. (R. 108 mins.) In select theaters starting Wednesday, Nov. 2. Available to stream on Netflix starting Nov. 16.