“The Wonder” opens up behind the scenes.
We find ourselves in a warehouse. Scaffolding surrounds an unfinished set, film equipment is scattered about, and it’s eerily empty as strings crescendo against haunting vocalizations.
Sebastián Lelio’s choice to begin his new film – which takes place in rural Ireland in 1862 – in a modern, metatextual setting might give you a bit of a start. You might even double back to your Netflix homepage to make sure you’ve queued up the right film (I did). That is, until a title card appears and a narrator (Niamh Algar) begins to speak. “This is the beginning,” she says. “The beginning of a film called, ‘The Wonder.’”
As the camera slowly pans across the soundstage, we join actress Florence Pugh – or Nurse Elizabeth “Lib” Wright – on a ship. Although we see the transition from real life to film, the remnants of the set seamlessly disappear as the ship emerges, light and excess water streaming in through cracks in its frame as it lightly jostles with the rolling waves outside. But as effortless as the switch is, the fact that it exists at all draws attention to the filmmaking process in a way that while intriguing, might be antithetical to the point the film is trying to make.
Filmmaking inherently concerns stories, and why and how we tell them. But “The Wonder” paints a much bleaker portrait of that age-old tradition than most. Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue (who co-wrote the screenplay along with Lelio and Alice Birch), the film is not only a cautionary tale about the power of stories, but an interrogation of who gets to tell them and why. Together, Lelio and cinematographer Ari Wegner turn a small Irish village into an eerie dreamworld that sweeps you away with a hypnotic sense of slow, creeping menace. But the metatextual additions break that spell. “We are nothing without stories, and we invite you to believe in this one,” says the narrator. But how can we fully believe when the seams are so clearly defined in front of us?
Our story begins with Lib, an English nurse who has been summoned to a rural Irish village to observe 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy). Anna and her family claim that she has not eaten anything in four months while remaining perfectly healthy, believing the reason to be some sort of divine intervention. Lib, along with a nun, has been tasked with observing Anna, verifying or disproving her claim, and reporting back to a group of local town leaders with her findings.
Girls like Anna – or “fasting girls,” as they were called – were not an anomaly during the Victorian Age. Usually young, they claimed to be able to go without food for indefinitely long periods of time, and skepticism and fascination surrounded them. In this story, Lib is the skeptic, and Pugh evokes a quiet sturdiness that helps ground the film’s mysticism.
Pugh often plays women in some sort of peril, whether it be trapped by a cult and a bad boyfriend in “Midsommar,” or trapped in a different cult by a different bad boyfriend in “Don’t Worry Darling.” There is certainly peril in “The Wonder,” but here Pugh has the chance to exert herself over that danger rather than become swept up in it. Lib is as no-nonsense as they come, with a buttoned-up quality that Pugh carries with a confident set to her shoulders. But through strong direction paired with Pugh’s deftness in wielding her physicality and expression, we understand her sturdiness to be a necessity. It’s not an act, per se, but essential to making her way through the world. When her methods are questioned, she holds herself against the committee men and the O’Donnell family with her chin up and chest forward. But the first time we see her truly alone, the camera edges in on her standing in the corner of the room. She seems almost impossibly small against the dark of the wall as she finally takes a moment to breathe, her rigidity subtly seeping out of her.
As the film goes on, it becomes clear that Anna’s fasting claim is two-fold – the story not only saves her family from a darker possibility, but provides a suffering people with a bit of hope. “The Wonder” takes place just over a decade after the end of Ireland’s Great Famine, during which roughly one million people died and more than that fled the country, forever changing Ireland’s political, cultural, and social landscape. It’s easy to see why Anna’s lack of need for food might hold some power over this small Irish town. Anna survives on “manna from Heaven,” she says. God has exalted her so that she needs no nourishment but that which He provides. After years of horror, Anna is a beacon of God’s forgiveness. Here is a girl who has conquered hunger – the very thing that ravaged and ruined so many lives for so long.
Lelio has said the metatextual device he uses is meant to expose the viewer to the weight Anna’s story has with these characters. The intent is admirable. If you can show the audience the transition from behind the scenes to onscreen – tell them from the jump that this is all fake and still sweep them away – you can make a strong connection to how easy it is for these characters to grasp onto Anna’s fasting as fact. But as mesmerizing as “The Wonder” can be at times, the metatext only makes the artifice more apparent. The lighting is otherworldly, filling dingy nooks and crannies with unnaturally bright reds and yellows. The O’Donnell home and the inn that Lib stays in are beautifully constructed, but distinctly play-like in their build, especially when paired with the way the camera frames the action. Even the sweeping, outdoor landscapes feel like painted backdrops. That’s not to say this style isn’t intentional, as it surely is. But with such specific attention drawn to the fact that this is a movie, I found myself lingering on how the story was constructed rather than losing myself to its will.
“The Wonder” is at its strongest when it doesn’t go out of its way to draw attention to its themes. With Lib at the center, it offers a fairly nuanced patriarchal critique without coming across as didactic. The committee specifically asked Lib to observe Anna for a few reasons. She’s not a physician, but a nurse – and an English one at that. This is never explicitly stated, but as the observation of Anna goes on, it becomes clear to Lib and the viewer that the committee has no intention of finding fault in Anna’s story. Lib was picked because if it were to become apparent that Anna was lying, an English nurse is easier to ignore than an Irish doctor. After all the pain the country, the town, and the O’Donnells have been through, Anna’s divine calling is something to believe in. But while “The Wonder” understands the power stories can hold as suppressants for our own pain, it also understands that storytelling in the wrong hands – hands that would rather hold onto a dangerous truth than accept an ugly one – can be a treacherous tool.