M, 112 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
Every fiction feature is an invitation to believe. If it’s the promise of raw experience or of forbidden knowledge we are after, or an escapade free from reality, all we need is some convincing in the first twenty minutes that the story is worth watching, and we’re off to a good start.
This strange, unusual story told by Chilean director Sebastian Lelio, adapted from the book of the same name by the acclaimed Irish writer, Emma Donoghue, gives it to us straight at the start. It is going to tell us a story. As the camera pans from the outside world into a studio and past the constructions on set that will bring the film’s fictional world to life, a woman’s voice reminds us of the importance of stories in our lives. We are nothing, she says, without our stories. I tend to agree.
The Wonder is set on the moors of the Irish Midlands where a devout 11-year-old, Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy), has become famous for staying alive despite refusing food. The child’s impoverished family has somehow survived the recent Great Famine, and is, it has to be noted, now benefitting from the fame of their daughter, still alive after four months without food.
Her fame spread far and wide, with visitors from everywhere arriving every day to observe her, and deposit a coin in the family poor box
It’s 1862. The pall of poverty hangs over the land and its people are steeped in religion. The strange phenomenon of the miraculous ‘fasting girl’ alerts the local authorities who set up a panel of five learned types to manage a matter that is getting out of hand. They take practical measures, hiring two women to watch over the child to see if she is getting food from a secret source. The ‘watch’, conducted by a nun and nurse in separate shifts around the clock, will take place over a period of two weeks.
How things go when Sister Michael (Josie Walker) is on watch we do not know, but the inquisitive mind of Nurse Elizabeth ‘Lib’ Wright (Florence Pugh) is hard at work when it’s her turn. Anna’s explanation that she survives on ‘manna from heaven’ doesn’t satisfy the sceptical, science-trained mind of a nurse who attended t the wounded and dying during the Crimean War. There has to be a reasonable explanation for the girl’s survival.
That said, Lib is not without demons of her own. Since the death of her baby and disappearance of her husband, loss, grief and guilt have taken a heavy toll and she takes opium at night to send herself to sleep.
A Daily Telegraph journalist, William Byrne (Tom Burke), turns up to report on the story of the miracle child. He grew up in the region and has views of his own, but as he pesters Lib for information and insight, antagonism turns to attraction as the combative pair grow close. The relationship they establish allows for the developments and new directions in the second half of the story.
A strange and immersive experience that isn’t easy to categorise, but is told with conviction
If you closed your eyes, you would miss the striking work here by cinematographer Ari Wegner (The Power of the Dog). But you could concentrate on the intriguingly creepy score by Matthew Herbert, a fascinating concoction of clanking and whirring sounds that unsettle and disturb.
There are some scenes that gesture towards thriller tropes, with Anna’s face underlit, drooling blood or other body fluids, but the label of thriller is a bit of a stretch. Psychological or period drama don’t quite fit either. This idiosyncratic, immersive experience isn’t easy to categorise.
When the narrator in The Wonder is revealed partway through, with Kitty (Niamh Algar) looking at us straight to camera, it disrupts the spell, but only briefly. In no time at all the narrative reasserts itself and we are immersed once again in the tale of a young Irish girl, ‘the famous fasting girl’, and the English nurse and war widow, who becomes her carer.
A strong and persuasive Florence Pugh, who stole the show in the recent Little Women, has captured the vulnerable side to her character here. Besides the performances and the look and feel of it all, there is plenty to recommend The Wonder, if you are willing to suspend disbelief and embark on its surprising journey.