The Wonder, the latest from Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, begins in a far more meta manner than one might expect from a broody period drama. The first thing the viewer sees is the film’s behind-the-scenes conceit, the set plainly assembled from pale sheets of plywood supported by ample scaffolding. Lights, cameras and other requisite equipment lay neatly assembled on the soundstage; the film’s title card appears in the midst of this up-front artifice.
“This is the beginning,” states a faceless narrator (voiced and later embodied by Niamh Algar). “The beginning of a film called The Wonder. The people you are about to meet, the characters, believe in their stories with complete devotion. We are nothing without stories. And so we invite you to believe in this one.”
The camera then pans and moves toward a young English nurse (Florence Pugh), whose occupation and nationality is disclosed via voiceover, alongside the film’s time and place: 1862, England bound for Ireland, the Great Famine (known as the “Potato Famine” to most) only tapering off in the past decade or so. “The Irish hold the English responsible for that devastation,” states the narrator. This piece of information, contextless in the greater history of the brutal famine, instantly presents Pugh’s character as a maligned outsider. As The Wonder marches onward, the narrative championing English intervention among a seemingly savage Irish becomes harder to stomach—particularly if one has a tangible connection to the Celtic culture.
Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel by the author with Lelio and Alice Birch, The Wonder unfolds from nurse Elizabeth “Lib” Wright’s (Pugh) point of view, beckoned to the dead center of Ireland to conduct a fortnight-long “watch” over young Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy), who claims to have subsisted solely on “manna from heaven” since her 11th birthday four months ago. A staunch agnostic who’s seen first-hand the atrocities of battle while working under Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, Lib is constantly butting heads with the devoutly Catholic Irish people who’ve summoned her. Lib sees her role as an active investigator as opposed to a bedside companion, searching the cramped quarters of the O’Donnell home for secret food stashes to explain Anna’s impossible fasting feat. When she comes up with nothing, Lib demands that all physical contact between Anna and her family cease. Predictably, the girl’s health rapidly declines after this order. To Lib’s astonishment, the townspeople—including Anna’s family—seem perfectly fine with the prospect of her impending deterioration and death, intent on never revealing the hoax they’ve concocted. “It’s God’s will,” they simply resign as the girl wastes away.
The nonchalance among Irish residents concerning a child’s encroaching demise is, simply put, evil. It’s a cutting contrast to their religious affiliation, which supposedly advocates for so-called “innocents,” namely children (and the unborn above all others). The Wonder takes place well before anti-abortion sentiments became one of the Catholic Church’s central tenets (in truth, children were lucky enough to survive into adolescence during and in the immediate wake of the famine), yet the air of moral revulsion toward Catholics is palpable within the film itself. The Catholic Church and its supporters have undoubtedly championed and defended repulsive acts for millennia—crusades, genocide, child molestation—and it’s more than appropriate to disavow an institution that has caused an incalculable amount of pain. What makes The Wonder feel callous and biased in its investigation, however, is its fealty to an anti-Irish sentiment that drove one million citizens to starvation during a 10-year period. The Catholic Church is a heinous institution—but what about the crimes of the then-expansive British Empire?
To Donaghue’s credit, her novel is direct about the prevalence of anti-Irish sentiments among the British, with Lib often revealing her prejudice toward these people via the writer’s prose. At one point, she bitterly thinks that the Irish are “shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless, always brooding over past wrongs.” Of course, Donaghue’s Irish heritage makes the inclusion of these remarks all the more powerful. Of the Great Famine itself, the novel also notes that “half the country wouldn’t have died if the landlords hadn’t kept shipping away the corn, seizing cattle, rack-renting, evicting, torching cabins…Or if the government at Westminster hadn’t thought it the most prudent course of action to sit on their arses and let the Irish starve.” It’s puzzling that Donaghue’s novel (rightfully) addresses the history and ongoing conflict between the English and Irish while the film—which she helped shape as co-writer—is almost entirely devoid of these musings.
The Wonder continues Lelio’s ongoing cinematic investigation of religion, which has focused on the influence of Christianity and Catholicism in Latin America and beyond. As such, it makes sense for the film to align itself with the atheistic Lib amid a surplus of deeply repressed, predominantly male religious servants. What good does it do, however, to depict the largely impoverished Irish populace as amoral swine? Lelio handles religious prejudice, particularly as it intersects with misogyny, far more thoughtfully (and sensitively) in his 2018 film Disobedience, which depicts the homophobia two lesbians endure within London’s Orthodox Jewish community. Why, then, do the director and co-writers feel so attached to portraying the Irish in such a starkly unflattering light, all but eliminating the anti-Irish sentiments of its English heroine and the colonial power she hails from?
Even without the inclusion of Pugh’s character’s prejudiced thoughts, the film oozes a tangible distaste for the very people whose “story” we are following. These small-town Irish folk are depicted as barbaric yokels, prone to inbreeding, dim-witted fanaticism and senseless cruelty. As a whole, The Wonder conjures the abject horror of watching a rodent devour its newborn litter. “It’s just their nature,” we remind ourselves and shudder. What the film and Donaghue’s novel unfortunately have in common is the narrative’s reliance on a shocking revelation concerning Anna’s so-called “fast,” a homegrown horror fostered within the hushed halls of a deeply broken home. Clearly, Lib has no choice but to be, as her name would suggest, the liberator of this young girl trapped in a backwards nation. In this sense, Lelio argues that salvation comes not from religion, but from a secularly “sane” savior. During the film’s conclusion, the audience is once again presented with the reality of The Wonder’s fabrication, with rafters and wood beams holding everything in place on an otherwise barren soundstage. Are films truly “stories” whose man-made construction we must constantly remind ourselves of? Or are we brave enough to admit that these stories come from life, and what we reveal—and obscure—through this artifice is inherently political?
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Writers: Emma Donoghue, Alice Birch, Sebastián Lelio
Stars: Florence Pugh, Tom Burke, Kíla Lord Cassidy, Elaine Cassidy, Caolán Byrne, Niamh Algar, Toby Jones
Release Date: November 16, 2022 (Netflix)
Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan