Producers: Ed Guiney, Tessa Ross, Andrew Lowe and Juliette Howell Director: Sebastian Lelio Screenplay: Emma Donoghue, Alice Birch and Sebastián Lelio Cast: Florence Pugh, Kila Lord Cassidy, Tom Burke, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Niamh Algar, Elaine Cassidy, Caolán Byrne, Brían F. O’Byrne, Dermot Crowley, David Wilmot, Ruth Bradley and Josie Walker Distributor: Netflix
The specter of the great Irish famine of the 1840s hangs over this adaptation of a 2016 novel by Emma Donoghue, which she’s refashioned for the screen in collaboration with Alice Birch and director Sebastián Lelio. “The Wonder” is set in 1862, when English nurse Elizabeth “Lib” Wright (Florence Pugh) arrives in a small Irish village, hired to observe a girl who’s supposedly survived without eating for several months in order to help determine whether the case is a miracle or a hoax.
Under instructions from the town council, which includes Dr. McBrearty (Toby Jones), Father Thaddeus (Ciarán Hinds), innkeeper Seán Ryan (David Wilmot) and several other town notables, she will rotate eight-hour shifts with a Catholic nun (Josie Walker), keeping the child under constant observation to ensure that her parents Rosaleen and Malachy O’Donnell (Elaine Cassidy and Caolán Byrne), or her highly religious older sister Kitty (Niamh Algar), aren’t secretly feeding her. Pious visitors are, after all, making contributions after seeing young Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy) in the family’s remote farmhouse.
The narrative focuses, of course, on Wright’s observation of Anna, a gaunt girl of almost ethereal serenity given to repeating a prayer about Christ’s blood over and over while explaining when asked that she’s being nourished by “manna from heaven.” Skeptical, scientific Wright, of course, will have none of that, and sets down a rule prohibiting her family from any physical contact with her so as to preclude any possibility of their passing food to her; the girl’s health deteriorates soon after, increasing Wright’s doubts.
But gradually a bond builds between them, and Anna admits to the nurse a dark secret about her dead brother that proves to be key to her fast—an instance of anorexia mirabilis related to certain beliefs some of the faithful held about souls assigned to purgatory or, worse, to hell. And the revelation leads Lib to become as fiercely protective of Anna as the mother was of her son in another film Donoghue adapted from one of her novels, Lenny Abrahamson’s remarkable “Room” (2015).
The desperate actions Wright takes to save Anna are connected with her own transformation from neutral observer to committed maternal figure as “The Wonder” reveals the grotesque realities of the O’Donnell home—and the realities of Lib’s past: though she initially identifies herself as a widow who has never had a child, the truth is otherwise, as her nightly consumption of a drug and her fingering a pair of baby’s booties suggest. But the full story of her past comes out only as a result of her growing relationship with reporter William Byrne (Tom Burke), a cynical sort who’d grown up locally but left to make a career in the larger world and has now returned to cover Anna’s story. As they grow closer, Lib takes him into her confidence and ultimately persuades him to help her rescue Anna in a turn both melodramatic and improbably hopeful, but one you’ll be likely to accept if you’ve surrendered to the picture up to then.
This is a gloomily atmospheric film, with the visuals dominated by the starkness of Grant Montgomery’s production design and Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s costumes, and by the windswept vistas of the desolate Irish landscape, caught in color-drained widescreen images by cinematographer Ari Wenger. The mood of mystery and foreboding Lelio and his collaborators manage to create is palpable, and is enhanced by Kristina Hetherington’s unrushed editing and Matthew Herbert’s evocative score.
But the critical element of the film’s success lies in the extraordinary performances of Pugh and Kila Cassidy, who invest their scenes together with a quiet intensity and an unsettling aura that permeate the entire film. Many of the supporting players, like Jones and Hinds, are underused, but together they add a sense of local color to the proceedings. Burke doesn’t manage to make Byrne’s change of character completely convincing (truth be told, the sudden explosion of passion between him and Lib isn’t prepared for very well), but he catches the character’s ambivalence toward the close nicely.
One choice of Lelio’s that undermines the film’s effectiveness must be mentioned. He opens it with an introduction by Algar on a soundstage, inviting viewers to give themselves over to a most unlikely story; she then goes on to serve as a narrator. The rationale behind this device is apparently to entice us to enter the alien world he then unfolds. But it actually has the effect of distancing us from it, and should have been rethought.
As a parable of faith versus reason “The Wonder” can be accused of awkwardness and implausibility, but as a portrait of a woman driven to attempt almost anything to save a child from harm it has considerable potency.