The Wonder – Review

The Wonder NetflixIreland, 1862. The spectre of the Famine looms large over the island. People are starved of hope and haunted by loss. This is the backdrop of Sebastian Lelio’s The Wonder, based on Emma Donoghue’s book of the same name. The film blends religious fervour, grief, hunger and innocence lost as it unravels a devastating story of a young girl who refuses to eat.

Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy) hasn’t eaten in the past four months. She says that she is sustained by “manna from heaven”. The village elders, on the local council, are conflicted between calling for a miracle and declaring a new strand of science. Nurse Elizabeth Wright (Florence Pugh), arrives from England, tasked with keeping watch over the child. Is she a true miracle, is she faking it or is there something more sinister going on?

The film starts, and ends, with a fourth wall break. The bare bones of a film set expose the “storytelling” in what we are about to see. This is a neat little narrative choice from Lelio, as immediately it encourages us to question if what we are seeing is, indeed, real. The howling winds, the heavy rain and the seemingly endless rural landscapes seem standard enough, given the setting. But it’s the curious stares, the isolated cottages and the whispered, repeated prayers that make you wonder if this is something of a ghost story.

Florence Pugh excels in her role as the curious but officious nurse. She has no time for religious reasoning and is evidently annoyed that her expertise – she nursed soldiers during the Crimean War – is being used for little more than watching. She establishes a rapport with Anna quickly, and their relationship is central to the film’s beguiling yet devastating core. The scenes in which Pugh is alone in her room reveal a sorrowful past, through soundless cries for help. It is a thoroughly solid performance – it is her steadfastness that allows Anna, and others,  to realise the truth.

Kila Lord Cassidy is all doll-like naivete to begin with – a smiling, simple girl who believes she is being sustained by Jesus. But, as the film progresses, we see Lord Cassidy’s full dramatic capabilities. Her emotional range is phenomenal – one scene in particular stands out for being utterly distressing – as she essentially launches the film into its third act. Her story is harrowing; her innocence bruised.

The Wonder NetflixThe Wonder often feels part ghost story, part socio-political narrative. It freely takes swipes at the Catholic Church and the grip it had on Ireland at the time. There’s also a speech or two about children all over the world going to bed on an empty stomach whilst rich men do not seem to care – something that is very much front and centre of contemporary politics. But that is not to say that it is full of scathing monologues. Instead, it is a slow, quiet burn that allows its message to seep in through strong characterisation and well-written dialogue.

All of the characters are holding on to grief on some level. The Famine makes its presence felt through absent family members and, of course, the film’s obsession with hunger and food. Lib mourns a life and a family that she barely got to have. Anna’s family are also mourning the loss of her older brother. Journalist William Byrne (Tom Burke) returns home to realise that his own parents nailed themselves into their home during the Famine to avoid the shame of dying in the street. There is trauma and unwanted reminders on almost every corner; on every face.

There is also the tension of familial relationships and the relationship between Ireland and the Church. Anna almost looks to Lib like a mother and, in turn, Lib no doubt sees what her life could look like through her relationship with Anna. Anna’s family seek solace (and perhaps glory) in the Church – this, despite the fact that prayers did nothing to stop the terror of the Famine. Again, rather than shout about these issues, Lelio subtly weaves them into a look shared between characters or words left unsaid.

It is perhaps not quite the supernatural thriller that the trailer hints at but The Wonder is an excellent character driven film that benefits from the brilliant talents of Florence Pugh and Kila Lord Cassidy. It delivers its blows almost silently, which makes the impact of these revelations even more traumatic. It is a film that is quietly haunting, one whose story may well linger with you long after viewing.

The Wonder is now streaming on Netflix.

Mary Munoz
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