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  • Writer's pictureDenise Breen

The Wonder: a battle of wills in the West of Ireland

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

3.5 out of 5

The Wonder, starring Florence Pugh, Tom Burke, Elaine Cassidy, Kíla Lord Cassidy, Niamh Algar, Toby Jones, and Ciarán Hinds, had its Irish Premiere in Dublin back in late October and is now streaming on Netflix.

The film centres on an English Nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) who is called to Ireland by a devout community to conduct a 15-day examination over Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy), an 11-year-old girl who claims not to have eaten for four months, surviving miraculously on “manna from heaven”. As Anna's health rapidly deteriorates, Lib is determined to unearth the truth, challenging the faith of a community that would prefer to remain believing.

From the opening frames, we know this is going to be an unusual film as it shows us the sets and behind the scenes of the film and talks about the stories we tell each other and how they define us, as individuals and as a community. If there were a central theme to Sebastian Lelio's latest film it would be that.

Lelio is a director I have admired since his 2017 film "A Fantastic Woman" and he co-wrote the screenplay based on the book by Emma Donoghue. The film itself is a battle of wills at times. The story pits Wright’s will against that of an 11-year-old who is miraculously thriving without food, of her family and the shadows that haunt its corners, of a village ravaged by the great Irish famine only too glad for any “blessing” like the child, the "wonder", of a doctor who won’t brook a nurse’s opinion, and of the Catholic Church zealously guarding its influence.

But if the battle of wills is the biggest strength of The Wonder, it is also its biggest weakness. No one stands a chance against Nurse Wright (Pugh). Cassidy as the 11-year-old Anna is scary in her devout and obsessive faith, but her obsessiveness withers away almost too quickly and easily. Her parents, the O’ Donnells, are eventually nothing more than ignoramuses who can’t be persuaded to be “better”. There is no sincere attempt to understand where these devout people – with their lives of hardship, their hand-to-mouth existence, with little food to spare, and dependent on the Church as their almost only pillar of support — come from, or to connect with them at that level. It is only the two “outsiders” — Wright, the English nurse, and Byrne (Burne), the local who lives in London now and is a journalist — who can see that Anna needs “saving”.

A village committee, comprising the local doctor and the local priest, has brought Wright all the way from England to this bleak and dark Irish countryside – captured beautifully in all its wet and windy desolation by Ari Wegner, so that you can almost feel the chill – to “watch” Anna for 14 days. Wright is to share eight-hour shifts with a nun, similarly from outside – it is as literal as it gets, this sharing of space between science and faith in Anna’s world.

The idea behind the “watch” is to establish that Anna is indeed what the village wants her to be: a genuine wonder. One of the first things Wright does is to stop the stream of visitors coming to see the “miracle” child; next, she forbids her family from coming close to or touching her. Again, the nun, her equal partner in every respect, has nothing to say on the matter.

As Anna deteriorates, suddenly and rapidly, doubts are solidified in Wright’s mind, who keeps meticulous notes in her leather-bound diary of the girl’s vitals and measurements. What is this “manna from heaven” that Anna says keeps her “feeling full”? Why is this 11-year-old obsessed with praying 33 times a day, including dropping to her knees in the middle of a wet bog? What is the family not saying about Anna’s brother who died? Why the fears of purgatory and hell that consume Anna?

Wright, meanwhile, bears her own secrets, having lost her baby at 3 weeks. She carries around the pain in the shape of two woollen booties, taking them out at night, taking a swig of morphine and pricking herself, to lull herself into sleep.

Eventually, having teased interesting questions about faith and its role in people’s lives, about Anna and Wright being at two ends of what women could be in those times (1862), about eating as pleasure vs fasting as piety, the film does build up to a redemption.

Only, it is of Nurse Wright. Not sure if she was the intended party.

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