Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue has a knack for telling compelling stories that often involve a complex look into the special bonds between women and children. One of her earlier novels, Room, displays that kind of powerful relationship front and center and saw success on the big screen in 2015. The Wonder, directed by Sebastián Lelio, is also based on one of Donoghue’s works of the same name. The story is inspired by the very real “fasting girls” that first appeared around the middle ages. These facades were often orchestrated by families in an attempt to bring blessings from their communities in a post-famine era. Many young girls lost their lives despite having access to good health. Led by the riveting Florence Pugh, The Wonder follows one nurse doing whatever it takes to assure the safety of a child while trying to navigate a world of delusion and religious fervor
The Wonder begins as English nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) is summoned to a remote area in 1860s Ireland to investigate an alleged miracle. This phenomenon comes in the form of a young girl who has supposedly not eaten a single bite of food in over 4 months, yet appears wholly and entirely healthy. Lib is obviously perplexed as she takes watch over the girl, carefully observing her on walks and while she sleeps, sharing shifts with a nun. Her skepticism is met with a brash retort as many surrounding village people believe this to be an act of God or sign from above. Lib is ridiculed by locals for being unconvinced, which only drives her to be more determined to debunk this presumed religious spectacle.
The young girl in question is Anna, portrayed by the brilliant Kíla Lord Cassidy, who tolerates Lib’s incessant surveillance, physical checks, and note-taking without complaint. The English nurse, out of suspicion, bans any outside contact from anyone but herself and the other observer, including Anna’s own parents. The child takes time to chant the same prayer dozens of times a day and when questioned, reveals that she had a brother that passed whom she and her family believe is burning in hell and her own sacrifices will be how he’s saved. Lib sympathizes with Anna but begins to gradually lose patience when faith begins to overshadow fact, leading to a potentially lethal situation as the young girl starts to grow weaker.
Florence Pugh is intensely perfect as Nurse Lib, starting out with a harnessed perspective of great concern to slowly then spiral into exasperation and near-fury. Fresh off her carrying turnout in Don’t Worry Darling, Pugh commands each ardent scene in The Wonder with ease and turns around to lovingly care for little Anna with such quiet comfort and maternal grace. Pugh’s confidant turned love interest is a handsome and intelligent Irish Time reporter played by Mank star Tom Burke. As one of the only people to side with Lib and take her seriously, he becomes more deeply involved the more she loses her composure. Burke’s solid performance compliments Florence Pugh’s tour de force, and alongside the impressively emotional Kíla Lord Cassidy, they make up quite the engrossing trio to root for.
Cinematographer Ari Wegner (The Power of the Dog) captures the desolately raw, yet gorgeous landscape of 1860s Ireland in a way that makes the location feel like its own relentless character. Then there’s the bountiful score by Matthew Herbert, whose hair-raising music creates pulsating waves of distress and uneasiness throughout the film. Herbert sprinkles what sometimes sounds like distant wailing, complimented by resounding thunderous booms similar to that of a powerful clock. This dissonance washes over viewers in an overwhelming fashion as we try and make sense of the “miracle” at hand, putting us hand in hand with Lib’s frantic struggle to grasp the truth on screen.
The Wonder is a cautious reminder of the dangers that can arise out of any sort of extremism, be it religious or not. This story highlights how blind faith can be tremendously harmful when it seeps down from generation to generation. Faith is an unfathomable force that, for those subscribing to it, can be blinding and all-encompassing, often replacing harsh truths with sugarcoated anecdotes so that the devotee may find peace. It can be an instrument of deliverance and hope, but can easily become destructive and deadly ammunition when desperation needs something to claw at. The Wonder drives these heavy themes home ever so eloquently, resulting in a worthy adaptation that won’t be easy to forget, no fewer thanks to its powerhouse cast.
Through Sebastián Lelio’s film, he reminds us to take heed of fanaticism and to be aware of the difference between spiritual and intellectual elasticity versus total rigidity. The Wonder highlights the crucial ability to separate truth and what we want to be true – how humans use folktales and religion hand in hand to explain the seemingly unexplainable, to bring us peace of mind and, ultimately, control the masses. Although it can be a safe haven for many as well as a provider of purpose and a moral compass, the dangers and historical repercussions often far outweigh any potential positives. Lelio has said that “a belief is a thought in which you insist” and that can be precariously powerful in these current times when we’ve seen history repeat itself on more than a few ugly occasions.