The Wonder – Film Review
by Frank L.
Director – Sebastián Lelio
Writers – Alice Birch, Emma Donoghue (based on the novel by), Sebastián Lelio
Stars – Florence Pugh, Niamh Algar, Ciarán Hinds
Emma Donoghue wrote the novel of the same name and has co-written the adaptation for the screen. She is also the executive producer and had a small part in the film, which ended up on the cutting room floor. Presumably, therefore, she was part of the creative process for the unusual beginning and ending of the film. It is debatable whether it adds anything to the story which is being told.
The story itself is one which Donoghue has created, from reports recorded over many years, of mostly but not exclusively young girls not eating for a multiplicity of reasons or claiming that they did not need to eat. These girls were called “Fasting Girls”. The Wonder is inspired by these stories and is set in a remote part of rural Ireland in 1872 which of course is after the famine. Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy) has not eaten food in over four months. Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), a young English widow who is also a nurse, has been asked by the local pillars of the community, all male, to observe Anna and report. Inevitably the mother of Anna, Rosaleen (Elaine Cassidy) is wary of Wright as an outsider and an English one to boot. Wright is not in thrall to religion but this community is and Wright is required to share the observation of Anna with a nun; Sister Michael (Josie Walker). Wright and Sister Michael represent two different worlds one based on factual observation and the other on religious teaching. The pillars of the community committee also have members with different axes to grind primarily inspired by the need of each to protect or promote his own vested interest.
The phenomenon of Anna has drawn also the attention of the outside world and there is, sniffing around looking for information, a London journalist by the name of William Byrne (Tom Burke). He is sceptical about the veracity of Anna but Wright is of interest to him while he seeks to uncover more substantive information. Anna and Wright gradually find a modus vivendi. Also, each of them has a past which affects their present state, but slowly tension between them starts to grow.
As the underlying phenomenon of a Fasting Girl is not easy to comprehend, this particular story naturally challenges the viewer as does the personality of Wright who at one level is a modern professional woman. At another level, she is unnerved by Byrne and his attentions. In short, this is a tale that is out of the ordinary and the relationships of the principal characters are complicated and out of the ordinary.
What is not complicated is the beautiful camera work and the soundtrack which both heighten the sense that one has entered a strange place where all is not as it seems. The colours of the landscape are windswept brown and the interiors are gloss creams, sludge greens and more browns. It all complements the unnerving story which is being told.
What is impressive is the acting of Pugh which relates the complexities of a rational trained nurse when faced with a primitive predominantly male society where reason is not dominant. It is an accomplished performance especially when you consider that Pugh for all her success is still a young actor. Also worthy of praise is Kila Lord Cassidy who is a mere 11 years old and has to create a credible character for Anna which she does. Interestingly in real life, she is the daughter of Elaine Cassidy who is her mother Rosaleen in the film.
This is a sombre piece whose landscapes and interiors are like romantic paintings from the nineteenth century. The underlying story has happened too often to be dismissed as a freak but it is a distressing story and its effect on the society in which it takes place is also unsettling. It will hold your attention.