Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue — and supposedly inspired by a true story — Sebastián Lelio’s moody, atmospheric The Wonder features a powerful lead performance by Florence Pugh. She stars as Lib Wright, an English nurse brought to the remote Irish countryside in the early 1860s to help determine the truth behind a girl’s claim that manna from heaven — not food — is what has kept her alive for several months.
Young Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy) is steadfast in her assertion that she hasn’t eaten a thing for more than four months, and both her family and local leaders (including devout, dour church officials) want to believe her, because it makes her a miracle — and, by extension, infers a blessing on their whole impoverished, downtrodden community. But the scientifically minded Lib is skeptical, positive that there’s a rational explanation for Anna’s situation.
As she spends time with Anna and gets to know her, Lib develops an affection for the girl, despite the fact that she’s positive Anna is lying to her. Lib finds an ally in journalist/fellow skeptic Will Byrne (Tom Burke), who has his own demons to wrestle — as, it turns out, does Lib, whose outward competency and efficiency mask deep personal trauma. The characters’ bleak circumstances are mirrored by the raw, wild Irish landscape, captured deftly by cinematographer Ari Wegner.
Lelio, working from a spare script he co-wrote with Alice Birch, elicits memorable work from his two leading ladies. Pugh is mesmerizing as Lib, whose professional disinterest flails in the face of the stark reality of Anna’s circumstances. And Cassidy is excellent as Anna, whose desire to be the miracle her family and neighbors need overshadows everything else in her life. Watching the two of them perform together truly is a wonder. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments: Leslie Combemale I had no idea of the proliferation of ‘fasting girls’ in the Victorian era. What a horror it was, and what an indictment of religion. It’s like every girl child could become a circus sideshow, and the church only looked on or condoned it. The Wonder imagines just one example of how and why a young girl might have stopped eating, only to survive, as she says in the film, ‘on manna from heaven’. Director Sebastián Lelio and his co-screenwriter Alice Birch expertly layer mystery, the danger of secrets, and a child’s reaction to misogyny, trauma, and toxic patriarchy, while keeping us guessing till nearly the end. This slow burn, however, continues to pull audience attention and propels itself forward mostly because of Florence Pugh’s performance. The actor continues to defy category or typecasting, and film fans are all the better for it.
Sherin Nicole Like Agnes of God before it, The Wonder does not speak to the power of God or even faith but rather the way men use the name of God to exact power—socially prescribed dominance wielded with enough force to crush women. Florence Pugh’s gruff and jaded Nurse Lib Wright is a shield against that force, but she escapes narrowly by her wits alone. Well, not alone. Her burgeoning care for her young charge, Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), also drives her. Anna is one of the historical Fasting Girls, said to subsist on manna from God alone. Writer/director Sebastián Lelio and writer Alice Birch adapt Emma Donoghue’s novel into a compelling film with the palette of a painting and the political machinations of The Church from long ago (and of today). By the end, we’re not sure what we want most for Anna or Lib, but we know the men who wield religion as a scepter cannot be allowed to win.
Marilyn Ferdinand In 19th-century Ireland, which had recently experienced a famine that killed one million people, a nine-year-old girl (Kíla Lord Cassidy) claims to have ingested nothing but water and “manna from heaven” for four months. A panel of religious believers and skeptics arranges for an English nurse (Florence Pugh) and a nun (Josie Walker) to observe the girl for 14 days to see whether some trickery is behind the claim, launching the dark story of The Wonder. The nurse’s growing involvement with the girl and a journalist (Tom Burke) sent to cover the story puts her at odds with those who seek to wash the sins of the town and the famine victims away through this fragile child. Pugh maintains a spine of steel bolstered by doses of laudanum as a nurse who saw horrible things during her stint tending the wounded, sick, and dying soldiers of the Crimean War, and endures her own private grief. The secrets revealed won’t surprise many, and the foreboding atmosphere and doleful music that suggest a certain otherworldliness reveal a much more common horror—deadly famines and hunger around the world.
Loren King 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.
Read full review.
Jennifer Merin The Wonder is a dark and mysterious drama set in the Irish Midlands in 1862. The story centers on a young girl, Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy) who claims she has eaten nothing for four months — except for manna from heaven. Yet she continues to live, albeit in weakened physical condition and a hallucinatory state of mind. She is deemed to be a miracle child by local civic and church leaders in the devoutly Catholic community. They hire an English nurse (Florence Pugh) to care for and monitor the child’s wellbeing during fifteen day period of examination. The nurse, who has medical training, questions the miracle and calls for force feeding to keep Anna alive. Ethics and religious beliefs are called into question in this very compelling thriller in which a child’s life is at stake.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Florence Pugh gives a nuanced and powerful performance as a Florence Nightingale-trained nurse employed to observe the inexplicable “miracle” of 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell, an Irish girl who has survived four months without eating. Based on the historical novel by Emma Donoghue, who adapted her own book into a screenplay, the drama is a treatise on science, faith (the other observing nurse is a nun, and the family believes she’s being fed spiritually by God), hunger (it takes place in 1862 just a decade after the Great Famine), and what it means to be seen, heard, and believed. Director Seabstián Lelio and cinematographer Ari Wegner make the rural Irish countryside another character in the sparsely paced film that breaks the fourth wall to remind us overtly that movies, and this one in particular, are stories about stories.
Nell Minow: Stories can heal us and they can destroy us. “The Wonder makes clear from the first moment that it is a story about both kinds of stories, and star Florence Pugh continues to dazzle us with her range and magnetism on screen.
Susan Wloszczyna: The first half of the movie is a slow-burn, but the plot catches fire in the second act when science is pitted against religious beliefs in a contest of grieving mothers. Pugh gives a sober, determined performance as a young widow whose loss of a child in infancy causes her to self-medicate with opium as she tries to save another from self-sacrifice. Read full review.
Liz Whittemore The Wonder explores the phenomenon of “the fasting girls” of the 19th century. A battle between fanaticism and fraud, the film, based on Emma Donahue’s novel of the same name, has the audience in a vice grip of emotional torture. Kíla Lord Cassidy and Elaine Cassidy mirror real life as they play mother-daughter in The Wonder. Each shining in their own right. Kíla lives in Anna’s beliefs. Her physical commitment is award-worthy. Elaine justifies Rosaleen’s sins under the guise of faith. It is a performance that made my skin crawl. Florence Pugh plays our heroine Lib Right, a widowed nurse with her own hidden trauma, desperately trying to save Anna’s life using science. The determination, frustration, and desperation clash, allowing Pugh to leave it all on the screen. Director Sebastián Lelio slickly builds upon the immediate tension with dark themes and a twisty script. Matthew Herbert’s melancholy, often jarring score haunts throughout, almost pushing the film into horror territory. The breaking of the fourth wall not once but twice is accosting, to say the least. The Wonder emphasizes how storytelling becomes manipulated. It is nothing short of mesmerizing.
Cate Marquis In The Wonder, Florence Pugh plays an English nurse hired by a committee in an Irish village to verify whether a young girl who claims not to have eaten anything for four months is telling the truth. A tense mystery unfolds as the English nurse, alternating with a nun who is also a nurse, watches the devoutly religious 11-year-old girl while the nurse tries to puzzle out what is really happening, a mystery set against the recent Irish Potato Famine in a place steeped in religious fervor and filled with conflicting motives.
Title: The Wonder
Directors: Sebastian Lelio
Release Date: November 16, 2022
Running Time: 109 minutes
Screenwriters: Alice Birch, Emma Donoghue (novel by), Sebastián Lelio
Distribution Company: Netflix
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin