Writer-director, Sebastián Lelio, seems to have an affinity for making films about women who are trapped–be it physically, emotionally, or spiritually–within the confinements of patriarchal society. He has already dipped his toe into the waters of religion and its effects on women in his film, Disobedience, so naturally, The Wonder, starring Florence Pugh, seems like a perfect match for the filmmaker. With the help of the book’s author, Emma Donoghue, and writer, Alice Birch, (who wrote Lady MacBeth also starring Pugh), Lelio has crafted a spellbinding and provocative film through a more feminine lens about just how much power stories can have over humanity.
The Wonder is set in Ireland in 1862, shortly after the Great Famine. Elizabeth “Lib” Wright (Florence Pugh), an English nurse, is summoned to a rural Irish village to observe a fasting eleven-year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy), who has been dubbed a “wonder” because her fast has lasted for four months. Anna claims that she hasn’t eaten a single thing and has been surviving on “manna from heaven.”
The news of her piety has spread, and people have begun traveling great distances just to see her. The town council, made up entirely of male dignitaries, would like to know if she has been lying or truly is some kind of saint. They devise a watch that is to last fourteen days in which Lib and another nurse, Sister Michael (Josie Walker), alternate shifts watching the girl and reporting all of their findings back to them. Lib is immediately suspicious and incredulous of Anna. As she spends time watching the girl, the line between personal involvement and professional neutrality begins to blur.
Right away this film opens with a rather jarring, fourth-wall-breaking scene that explicitly asks the audience to believe in these characters’ stories at least for the runtime of the film. The dangers of blind faith and taking certain stories at face value are shown, often pointedly, throughout the film. This makes the opening scene an interesting juxtaposition of touting the possible pitfalls of believing stories to asking the viewer to believe theirs. This also seems to be parallel to filmmaking and storytelling in general, considering the activity of watching films is based on the suspension of a certain amount of disbelief at times and believing the stories of the fictional characters that are presented to us in the moment. The opening scene does result in a spine-chilling and delicious payoff in the final moment of the film. Yet, despite being so engaging with its audience, there are moments when it does have an issue with fully letting them in.
Florence Pugh is stunning in her performance as Lib. She breathes life into the character and is electric in her display of tenacity and sharp wit. A highlight of the film is seeing her opposite Kíla Lord Cassidy on screen in her breakout performance as Anna. Cassidy completely embodies the character of Anna, and the subtlety of her voice timbre and inflections and pained expressions are bone chilling and heartbreaking. It is hard to believe this is her second feature length role.
It’s easy to get lost in Pugh’s performance when she is encapsulated within the rich cinematography of Ari Wegner. This is familiar and a reunion of sorts since Wegner also worked on Lady Macbeth with Pugh. Much like in The Power of the Dog, every shot from the breathtaking Irish landscape to the dark buildings in The Wonder is a gorgeous painting. Both Pugh and Cassidy pop and are sharply defined in every frame even within the cool color palette of the film. The lushness of the visual aesthetic makes everything more real and tactile. Wegner’s style is becoming more of a noticeable signature with every film she works on.
The film often feels claustrophobic in its approach. Many shots take place in dark, cramped rooms of buildings and houses. Characters’ heavy breathing is heightened and noticeably present within the sound design. The ethereal, other worldly score creates an ongoing eeriness and suspense that leaves the viewer constantly bracing themselves for what’s next. It’s almost as if the walls are closing in on not only Lib but the audience too as she frantically searches for answers. Moments that feel less claustrophobic occur when either Lib alone or both Lib and Anna are outside together. The sweeping, endless landscape and strong winds hint at possibility and freedom.
Wegner’s shot composition lends itself perfectly to Sebastián Lelio’s penchant for telling stories about confined women. All of our time is spent with Lib because the story is from her perspective, and frequently, when Florence Pugh is alone in a frame, the camera creeps tightly in on her face, literally trapping her there on screen, as she thinks or speaks. She is a woman caught in a moral and ethical dilemma. Should she help Anna and ignore her desires to continue the fast or remain impartial and watch her waste away in front of her eyes? All the while she is dealing with her own emotional baggage that she has brought with her. Anna is trapped in her blind and steadfast faith, doing something that she believes wholeheartedly is right for the wellbeing of hers and others’ souls. It is an odd feeling rooting for Lib to discover the truth and to help Anna while on the other hand, simultaneously hoping that she might fail in some way because Anna’s mission becomes important too.
Every time Lib speaks to the council members, she is trapped within the frame again while the men are displayed in a wide shot from her point of view. We are always placed squarely in Lib’s shoes, seeing and feeling what she feels. Sadly, this is an all too familiar view and situation to us in the modern day. A woman is begging a group of men to grant her permission to have bodily autonomy to do what she knows is best for her body and mind, but it is not only for herself but on behalf of Anna. It is not surprising that something sinister lurks behind the motives of these men, but their interests are played off as righteous and godly and for the good of the community while women are continuously unnecessarily forced to be martyrs.
Seeing a woman of science as the main protagonist in this particular time period is especially thrilling. She doesn’t only note Anna’s vitals and physical health but instead takes a more holistic approach, caring for Anna’s mental health and encouraging her to explain her reasoning behind the fast. When the situation devolves into something nightmarish and dire, Lib’s drive, intelligence, and resourcefulness are left to hold everything together. The majority of Lib’s conversations are with other women on screen, and it is very surprising that a group of men would leave what they considered such an important task to two women. They let them figure it out alone without interfering, even though you get the impression that they’ll end up dismissing any evidence that is presented to them that contradicts their interests and preconceived beliefs.
A clever facet of the film’s structure is the theme of starvation appearing in many forms throughout the narrative. On the surface, it is obvious that the one person who is specifically starving is Anna, but the entire village is poor and many are low on food in the post-famine world. The townspeople are also starved of hope. Anna is starved of understanding, compassion, and reassurance, and Lib is starved of human connection, a sexual release, and relief from the pain she carries from her past. The constant dismissal of needs breeds desperation and anguish; people begin to feed on things that were never meant to sustain life and hope in the first place.
Desperation makes its way through the film, oozing into every interaction Lib has with the townspeople. In addition to this community being deeply religious, they are so broken in spirit and weary after the Great Famine, that they’re desperately searching for a miracle to give them the strength to carry on and hope that things will get better. The news of Anna is like their own manna from heaven. It feeds their tired souls, and they are frustrated when Lib arrives to steal their miracle. The fact that she’s British also adds extra tension and wariness into the mix. The villagers lose sight of the fact that their miracle is just a child who is too small to carry the weight of an entire community’s hope on her shoulders.
All of these aspects hint at the all too common problem in our society, especially in religious communities, of discrediting academia and science in favor of believing something that satisfies personal narratives. Again we are reminded how everyone needs stories to believe in when an O’Donnell family member mocks Lib, calling the notebook she jots all of her data in her own little bible that she is writing. It seems to suggest, “we’re not so different after all, are we?” The story is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s, The Lottery. Rituals and traditions aren’t questioned even when they may be doing more harm than good.
Lelio has cast the audience as observers in this film as well, and we join Lib in her pursuit to discover the truth, but it sometimes feels like this style of storytelling is keeping us at arm’s length. We are never fully invited in. The emotional weight and impact of certain moments, while still moving, feel less heavy and tangible. Lib is so singular in her purpose, and she is often cool and pragmatic in her execution. She is there to do a job, and we are swept up in that purpose too. She watches Anna like a hawk and diligently records her measurements, vitals, and any changes that occur in the state of her overall health, and we are right alongside her, looking for anything out of place.
A particularly gut wrenching scene between Lib and Anna in the latter half of the film is still enough to knock you sideways, but the majority of the film is spent extremely focused on unraveling this mystery instead of becoming emotionally invested in the characters. All of the time spent with Lib alone are during her more quiet, darker moments, wordlessly numbing the trauma of her past or eating alone and thinking which is an intentional foil to Anna’s fast. Lib drops little pieces of the puzzle of her past into conversations with others, but the moments when we see her steely facade crumble are when she is spending time watching and getting to know Anna. These moments are not about us getting to know Lib, though, but serve to further unravel Anna’s mystery, leaving Lib mostly undefined.
Sebastián Lelio, Alice Birch, and Emma Donoghue have created a beautiful, gripping historical drama that shows the pitfalls of the heady cocktail of blind faith and desperation and how women must question the confinements of patriarchal society that cage them. Florence Pugh’s and Kíla Lord Cassidy’s performances both propel the narrative forward, hypnotizing the audience from the very beginning to the end. Even with its flaws, the film’s power resides in its ability to evoke questions and discussion long after it is over. The audience is repeatedly reminded that we as humans are nothing without stories. We’re all continuously writing our own stories to maintain certain illusions in order to survive, but what if somewhere along the way we became trapped inside our own separate creations?
The Wonder is currently streaming globally on Netflix and is additionally available in select theaters.
Florence Pugh's and Kíla Lord Cassidy's performances both propel the narrative forward, hypnotizing the audience from the very beginning to the end.
When I’m not busy daydreaming or having an existential crisis, I can usually be found watching a movie or TV, listening to music or a podcast, or with my nose in a book.