Emma Donoghue’s best known novel “Room” centered on a mother-child bond against a perilous world. Donoghue’s “The Wonder,” set in the 19th century, is also rich with themes of maternal connections and the resiliency of children despite the misguided intentions and outright treacheries of adults.
When English nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) arrives in Ireland in 1862, the memory of the great famine of the 1840s still haunts the nation especially its poorest residents. Fresh from treating soldiers in the Crimean war, the young nurse has been hired to observe an 11 year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy). Her family claims Anna has survived without food for months. This is treated as a miracle by the locals who drop by the family’s remote country house to pray with the child and to offer Anna’s pious parents a much needed coin.
Upon her arrival in the village, Lib checks into a lodging house where the owner informs her that there will also be a nun on hand to share watch duties. When Lib asks why a nun, the owner replies, “Welcome to Ireland.”
The commingling and clash of faith and science is one of the meatier aspects of the film, directed by Sebastián Lelio who wrote the adaptation with Donoghue and Alice Birch. As with Lelio’s 2017 film Disobedience about two women battling the restrictions of Hassidic Judaism, The Wonder depicts Lib’s struggle to reconcile her training, common sense, and compassion with the fervent faith of Anna, her family, and the dubious interests of the larger community.
Anchoring the film is Pugh (Don’t Worry Darling) who brings a youthful earnestness and no nonsense quality to Lib. Her opinions based on her training are dismissed by the local priests, doctors and all-male committee that oversees her role.
The Wonder is sumptuously shot by Ari Wegner (The Power of the Dog) as a grim, isolated setting with muddy lanes and bleak houses rendered in a somber palette that looks like a horror film. But there is a luminousness to the scenes between Anna and Lib as her affection for the child deepens and Anna begins to trust the nurse.
Donoghue has said she drew inspiration from a social phenomenon called the “fasting girls,” who claimed to be able to go without eating for months. There were many reported cases but the most famous was a young Welsh girl named Sarah Jacob who died of starvation in 1869.
Along with Lib, the audience becomes invested in Anna’s innocence and sincerity as well as her sorrow when she shares with Lib the source of her hunger for absolution and approval. It’s a perilous position for a child to be in and the film is at its strongest in depicting Lib’s gradual realization that she cannot just impassively “watch” but must take action.