Writers: Sebastián Lelio, Alice Birch and Emma Donoghue
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Miracle or fraud? Emma Donoghue adapts her novel The Wonder for the screen, working with Sebastián Lelio and Alice Birch to consider the boundary between science and faith in the aftermath of the Irish famine. Screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022, The Wonder creates a Crucible-like tension in a small community and taking a healthy scepticism that Director Lelio uses to explore the willingness to sacrifice a child for the sake of divine provenance and some very earthly family sins.
Miracle child Anna hasn’t eaten from four months and visitors come from all over Ireland to be in her presence. But a local committee comprising the doctor, priest and fervent townspeople needing to discover the truth of Anna’s survival hire Nurse Wright from England to form a Watch over the child for two weeks. But as Anna’s condition deteriorates, will anyone believe what Mrs Wright discovers.
Lelio, Birch and Donoghue’s film is interested in the artifice and immersive power of stories, fictions that can control other kinds of narratives and behaviours. So, Lelio’s film opens on a soundstage, tracking the Brechtian construction of fake rooms and sets in which we are about to be immersed. It is a technique that bookends The Wonder but prepares the viewer to think carefully about the events we see and, in tune with this story, how the surface of things belies the inherent falsity beneath. So while the writers set out their stall early – that Anna and her family are faking it – the claustrophobia Lelio creates makes Elizabeth Wright’s truth-seeking mission compelling.
This balance between deep Catholicism with its faith in Saints and miracles and the pure, medical examination enforced by the nurse works incredibly effectively, asking how slowly Enlightenment ideals spread and the desire to believe what you know and the evidence of your own eyes. The looming darkness inside the family home and cloud-strewn bleak beauty of the rural landscapes – painterly and rich in Ari Wegner’s cinematography – only add to the possibility of something bigger than science. The treacherous pathways not only limit communication with the outside world but almost insist that God is the answer.
The contention between fact and fiction that runs through The Wonder is more complex than old versus young, or metropolitan’s versus pastoral dwellers, it is not even as simple as Catholic or Protestant, and Donoghue’s characters convey a mixture of beliefs and possibilities depending on what confronts them, centring around the gaslighting of a child and a whole community for which the film offers only a partial condemnation – judging as much as it provides sufficient context to understand.
As Elizabeth Wright, Pugh is as watchable as ever, a character who conceals her own trauma for which she self-medicates, with the rigorous application of scientific examination and fact. Given plenty of emotional depth via a jagged relationship with an underwritten journalist played by Tom Burke, Pugh anchors a female-focused film about the control of female bodies, while Kila Lord Cassidy is excellent as the soulful Anna experiencing bodily and spiritual decline.
With good support from a panel of dismissive, well-educated men including Toby Jones as the local doctor, Ciaran Hinds as the priest and Brían F. O’Byrne as an especially zealous resident, The Wonder conjures up an immersive and confining scenario that asks significant questions about the lengths people will go for their faith and the real cost to body and soul.
The Wonder is screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.