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Film review: The Wonder

25 November 2022

Stephen Brown reviews a film about belief, set in 19th-century Ireland

Aidan Monaghan/Netflix © 2022

Josie Walker, Toby Jones, Kíla Lord Cassidy, Niamh Algar, and Florence Pugh in The Wonder

Josie Walker, Toby Jones, Kíla Lord Cassidy, Niamh Algar, and Florence Pugh in 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.” So begins The Wonder (Cert. 15). A plea for respecting other viewpoints, suspending disbelief, or asking us to reassess the stories we live by?

The camera pans across a film studio featuring a partly constructed house subsequently used in the movie. The artifice of storytelling established, we’re transported to 1862. Nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh, The Little Drummer Girl, Don’t Worry Darling etc.) travels to rural Ireland to monitor Anna, aged 11, who allegedly has eaten only “manna from heaven” for the past four months.

The film’s devout Catholics crave evidence of a Catherine of Sienna kind of miracle. Lib’s all-male employers include Father Thaddeus (Ciarán Hinds), who believes Anna’s fast has divine origins, whereas Dr McBreaty (Toby Jones) pursues medical explanations: scent molecules, photosynthesis, magnetism.

Based on a novel by Emma Donoghue (author of Room), this isn’t a crude scientific attack on religion. Rather, it examines our various metanarratives, all requiring constant revision in the light of experience. Lib has to move furthest, having to accept that there are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in her rationalist philosophy. Kíla Lord Cassidy is a brilliantly touching Anna, as we learn to appreciate why the story, moulded by centuries of spiritual baggage, which she tells herself is compelling enough for the outcome to be abstinence.

The thaumatrope given her by a professional storyteller (Tom Burke’s journalist) when spun quickly creates an optical sleight of hand. Things are seldom what they seem, and the Chilean director, Sebastián Lelio, implores us, without making his film ever a tract for our times, to beware illusions about life which ignore scenarios capable of amending ours.

Having lived under the oppressive Pinochet regime, his female-led films give voice to tales from the Unheard. In Disobedience (Arts, 30 November 2018), lesbian Jews contend with Orthodoxy. His Gloria movies view the plight of middle-aged, overlooked, “invisible” women. A Fantastic Woman scrutinises gender-identity politics. Similarly, Lib and Anna need to take control of their own stories.

Another, larger-scale story hovers over the piece: the 1847 potato blight. What the British government called The Famine was, in Bernard Shaw’s words, The Starvation. A colonised country full of food was compelled to export it. Anna’s hunger reflects a subject people silenced from living out their own story in obedience to their Master’s voice. Lib is regularly accused of failing to understand these people, how they deal with grief and find appropriate means of atonement. But so are the Irish ill-prepared to acknowledge that their own take on existence is as much a work in progress as the partially constructed house that we see at the beginning.

Coming to terms with our world through the stories that we tell requires a reality check. In the process of self-assertion, we can fail to consider it possible that we may be mistaken. Belief is contemplating the wonder of life’s ineffable mystery.

On release in cinemas and via Netflix

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