Nuanced moral landscape brings depth to film
(Ireland / UK / US, 2022)
Directed by Sebastiàn Lelio
Review by Iva Apostolova
Really, I wanted to see The Wonder because of Florence Pugh. Although she is only 27 and already has a reserved spot in the Marvel cinematic universe (I say this begrudgingly as her Marvel character, a Russian black widow, is rather unimaginative), as far as I am concerned, she is the real deal. A female version of sorts of Timothée Chalamet where talent and risk-taking is concerned. I first saw her in the title role of the brilliant 2016 Lady Macbeth where she gave a tour de force performance, practically carrying the entire movie on her back.
I knew Chilean director Sebastiàn Lelio from Disobedience, a movie about the forbidden love between two English Orthodox Jewish women. I already knew that Lelio was skilled in adapting books to the big screen (Disobedience is actually the debut novel of one of the most celebrated contemporary English writers and my personal favourite, Naomi Alderman). And I knew that he did not shy away from controversial topics and difficult conversations, so having seen The Wonder’s trailer I was convinced that, if nothing else, I will have a first-class cinematic experience. But the movie offers so much more.
The Wonder is based on the novel of the same name by the Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue (fun fact: Donoghue moved to London, Ontario, to live with her wife, a tenured professor at Western, and became a Canadian citizen in 2004). The story follows an English nurse, Lib Wright, who travels to a remote Irish village, where she is essentially hired to report on and confirm a miracle. The miracle being young Anna O’Donnell (played unfalteringly by Kila Lord Cassidy), the youngest daughter of poor and deeply religious farmers, who reportedly has not eaten in four months. When the disbelieving nurse Wright (Florence Pugh) questions Anna, the young child responds innocently and with enviable conviction that she lives on “manna from the heavens.”
It needs to be said at the outset that the story takes place in 1862, a decade after the end of the Great Hunger when over a million Irish people died from starvation or disease and just as many were forced to flee their homes. To complicate things further, we learn soon enough not only that nurse Wright has served in the Crimean war, but that she struggles with her own all-consuming grief over the loss of a newborn child. All that to say that this is not a story that pulls easy punches in the fight between good and evil, modern values versus religious backwardness. Rest assured, light does prevail over darkness in the end, but I would be remiss not to caution against black-and-white solutions. Just like the grey, subdued esthetics of the movie, taking place in the Irish Midlands, the moral landscape is nuanced and full of unexpected twists and turns, which is why, I presume, The Wonder was classified as a thriller.
It’s out of the sense of professional duty that nurse Wright agrees to proceed with the “watch” of Anna’s miraculous survival without food. But this sense of duty slowly but surely gives way to a much deeper need – the need to redeem herself and save the life of at least one child, a debt paid forward by the death of her own flesh and blood. As the task slowly takes shape in nurse Wright’s consciousness, we become aware of its seeming impossibility. The conviction that Anna must, at all costs (even her imminent death), continue fasting, has taken a strong hold not only in “the elders” of the village, along with Anna’s whole family, including her caring mother, but in Anna herself.
In trying to understand what motivates her to walk this suicidal path, nurse Wright uncovers a dark and ugly family secret, concealed in plain sight by the desperate wish of an innocent child to make things right by offering a great sacrifice. A sacrifice on behalf of her family, and even the entire nation. It is this final “revelation” of the secret that shows the way out for both nurse and child – an exit that, I am certain, the viewer will find as radical as it is necessary.
Running time: 1h 48m
Rating: 14 A
A Netflix original movie
Iva Apostolova is a professor of philosophy at Dominican University College and a film aficionado.