Set in Ireland in 1862, The Wonder tells the story of a young girl named Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy) who hasn’t eaten in four months. Everyone around her considers her to be a wonder. The town leaders (a priest, a doctor, a landlord and a Lord) want to confirm whether she is a living miracle or not, so they commission English nurse Elizabeth Wright (Florence Pugh) to help watch her to see if she’s actually eating. Elizabeth knows it’s not possible for a human being to live for that long without sustenance. William Byrne (Tom Burke), reporter for the Daily Telegraph, also believes the girl is a “wee faker”, but is more interested in who is pulling the puppets strings. When Lib suspects the girl’s mother Rosaleen is behind the ruse, Lib forbids anyone from interacting with the girl. As expected, Anna begins to slowly die. But why would Rosaleen want her own child to die?
The Wonder is very, very, very slow paced and atmospheric. It is so slow that the movie gave me the sensation that it was deliberately idling instead of moving the story forward. The movie has a lot on its mind, but the themes it introduces are never explored with any passion. There’s the ongoing animosity between the Irish and the English, subservience to religious dogma, a woman’s place in patriarchal society, and so on. Instead of producing fireworks, these themes are discussed in calm, hushed voices. Pugh appears to be the only one allowed to bring any energy to her performance, and she’s a standout. The movie that proceeds lethargically until the final fifteen minutes or so, when it finally decides to do something interesting with these characters. But then it uses an odd framing device to pop the balloon. Not Recommended.
The Wonder is a curious movie. It has things to say that it feels are important, but it says them in the most bloodless, passionless way possible. Its subject matter cries out for some level of drama (high, middle or low, take your pick), but between the direction and (most of) the acting, the movie feels like it’s in stasis for the majority of its run time. The movie finally decides to be more than a lugubrious and listless character study at the end of the third act, and the sudden introduction of action and intent nearly saves the movie. Unfortunately, a weird framing device introduced at the outset of the movie, returns and essentially neuters whatever impact the movie may have had.
In a small village in Ireland in 1862, an eleven year-old girl named Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy) who hasn’t eaten a morsel for four months. At least, that’s what her family claims. After this miracle has brought the village undue attention, so the town elders, which include Doctor McBrearty (Toby Jones), parish priest Father Thaddeus (Ciarán Hinds), town elder Sir Otway (Dermot Crowley), and local landlord John Flynn (Brían F. O’Byrne) have decided to employ a nun and a nurse to watch the girl for two weeks. If the girl is secretly eating, then either of the two should be able to catch it and report it back to the committee.
Elizabeth (Florence Pugh) is the nurse, who has come from England. She tended to fallen soldiers in the Crimean war, which folks seem impressed with even though it has nothing to do with the task at hand. She says she is a widow, but her husband didn’t die. Instead, Elizabeth’s husband abandoned her after their baby died (three weeks and 2 days). This bit of backstory ties into what I’m guessing is the movie’s overall theme, which I’ll get into shortly.
After arriving at the O’Donnell’s home, Elizabeth (or “Lib”), meets the O’Donnell family. Headed by mother Rosaleen (Elaine Cassidy) and father Malachy (Caolan Byrne) they are poor, proud and religious. Rosaleen’s sister Kitty also lives with the family, and her role in all this is somewhat of an open question. Lib examines Anna and discovers that she’s alert, healthy, and partakes only in water. Lib takes note of the odd way Rosaleen cups Anna’s face when she kisses her goodnight. If Lib had been paying attention, the “mystery” of the story would have been resolved in twenty-five minutes. The mystery is the least important thing in this movie, however.
At the forty-minute mark, Lib decides to force the hand of the O’Donnell’s. She forbids any member of the family to be in close contact with Anna, especially her mother. This action causes Anna to slowly and gradually die of starvation. To Lib’s chagrin, Rosaleen won’t ask Anna to eat. For her own part, Anna refuses to eat, even when she requires getting around in a wheelchair. Why Anna is doing this, and why her mother acquiesces to her behavior, involves Anna’s brother, who died recently. Adding to the cast of characters is William (Tom Burke), a reporter from London who grew up in the same area. Like Lib, he knows Anna’s faking it, but his angle is who stands to benefit. A member of the committee might, but each of their possible individual motives don’t justify letting a child die. Once Lib figures out the how, she soon deduces the why, and the justification given by the adult perpetuating the ruse is both incredible and shocking.
As I mentioned above, The Wonder is slow-moving to a fault. If you’re a fan of the films of Terrance Malick, you’ll probably love this movie. There are shots aplenty of the Irish countryside, rustic cabins and lodges, muddy roads, rolling clouds, etc. The movie features a very singular score by Matthew Herbert, full of odd noises and whispers, that feels inspired by Dvořák. Pugh earns the most praise for her performance as Lib. Of all the characters, her performance is the most credible, ranging from stoic to angry at her lot in life. Cassidy makes Anna a very intriguing character, ethereal and haunted like a young woman in a ghost story. Incredibly, the movie somehow manages to waste appearances by Hinds and Jones, two actors who mainly drift through the story with little to do except speak with authority.
As for the story itself, I found it a muddle of ideas that never quite take shape. There’s an aura of distrust between Lib’s English nurse and the Irish townspeople that’s touched on by several characters but never explored. At one point, William tells her, “You’ve fundamentally misunderstood these people, my people.” I thought to myself, “That makes two of us.” The movie hints that because of their treatment by the English, the Irish take pride in being in control over the only thing they have left: how they die. William’s parents nailed their doors shut so that they would die in their home rather than be seen begging for food. It’s a powerful statement, but the pairing of Lib and William doesn’t produce any romantic or dramatic tension.
The Wonder eventually reveals that Anna’s fasting is a way to redeem her dead brother, who is in hell for reasons his mother makes clear. Rosaleen apparently is fine with her daughter sacrificing herself so that both children will end up in heaven, which is another statement against, what exactly? The Catholic church? Religious zealotry? The movie also regularly shows Lib eating. Is this meant to symbolize how the English ate well while the Irish starved to death? The Wonder frustratingly introduces many themes, but only explores them topically.
One element the movie manages to drive home successfully is how both Lib and Anna are two women slowly being suffocated by a patriarchal society. Instead of being allowed to be a nurse, Lib is asked to bear witness to a dubious miracle and then blocked from intervening when Anna’s life is at stake. Anna is being killed by religious dogma while also serving as a pawn between the male power figures in the town, each of whom want to be associated with her miracle without asking any hard questions. The movie wants the audience to experience the paralysis both Lib and Anna feel in their everyday lives, and an hour in, when Anna started wasting away, I kept wondering whether anyone in the movie would do something, or if the movie would take a very dark turn with Anna’s demise. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t have the courage to be that bleak. If you really want to revel in that level of despair, I recommend you watch Jude, based on Thomas Hardy’s novel.
I mentioned above that the character of Kitty is used as a framing device for the story. At several points, she breaks the fourth wall and looks directly at the audience. In the preface, Kitty opines on how important stories are to us. Yes, that’s why we are watching this movie, after all. If I had a guess as to what Kitty implies, is that the movie’s ending is really just a fiction, that in the real world things would not have turned out how they did. That this movie, as just like the tenets of an established religion like Catholicism, are ultimately just stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives.
In the end, the freedom gained by Lib and Anna at the end of the movie is compared to an illusion, like the bird in the thaumatrope William gives to Anna. I can agree with that sentiment to a degree, I am at a loss as to why the movie would so willingly and blatantly sabotage the modest dramatic impact it was able to conjure up in its final fifteen minutes. The Wonder fails not because it was poorly made, has bad acting, bad dialog or is poorly directed. It doesn’t fail because the many things its tries to say aren’t important. It fails because the way it goes about telling its despairing story is to make every aspect about it tedious and boring.