NUI Maynooth, Ireland
by Graham Price. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
(Sebastián Lelio, 2022)
Sebastian Lelio’s The Wonder (2022) is an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel of the same name. Donoghue also wrote the film script. The film is set in 1862 in post-famine Ireland and centres on the English nurse Elizabeth Wright (Florence Pugh) who goes to Ireland to investigate a supposed miracle involving Anna O’Donnell (Kila Cassidy), an eleven-year old girl living on a farm with her mother (Elaine Cassidy, Kila’s real life mother), father, and sister in the Irish midlands. Anna has supposedly survived without food for four months, claiming that she is living on “manna from heaven”. Elizabeth has been charged, along with an Irish nun, to keep watch on Anna for two weeks and judge the authenticity of this “miraculous occurrence”. At the end of this period of observation, both watchers are to present separate reports to a committee comprised of doctors and priests (all men). The film spans the majority of this two-week period and examines Elizabeth’s growing friendship with Anna as both struggle with the traumatic events from their pasts that continue to haunt them. We learn that Anna’s brother has died several years before and Elizabeth has suffered several personal losses.
The film begins in Brechtian fashion by showing the viewers the film’s carefully constructed, very artificial set and by having a narrator (Niamh Algar, who also plays Anna’s elder sister) telling the audience the name of the film and how the characters who inhabit this cinematic world have complete faith in the stories they tell and how they seek an audience to have the same level of faith in the authenticity of their orally delivered accounts. This framing device has the effect of situating the film in the Irish storytelling tradition in which how the narratives are related are as important as the content of the stories being told. The reference to the word ‘faith’ is also important because the faith and specifically faith in specific narratives is one of the major themes in this film. Whether those cinematic narratives are religious, journalistic, or scientific, they are all united by the fact that they provide a shape to the world from which they emerge and they require a credulous audience to testify to their authenticity and imbue them with representative authority.
Probably the most famous Irish textual example of faith in storytelling is Brian Friel’s dramatic masterpiece Faith Healer (1979) in which three characters tell their captive audience their life stories. The factual accuracy of those stories might be suspect but that does not matter so long as those who hear those narratives have faith that what they are hearing represents some version of ‘the truth’, even if that truth is only confined to the personal perceptions of the tellers. Soon after Brian Friel co-founded (with Stephen Rea) the Field Day Theatre Company in 1980, one of the company’s directors, Seamus Deane, gave voice to some of the aims and objectives of that organisation and, by so-doing, reminded his readers of the importance that Irish artists placed in storytelling and in their audiences’ and readers’ faith in the authenticity of those narratives: “At the moment we [the members of Field Day] are six characters looking for a story to be believed” (Richtarick: 2004, 203). One of the opening lines from The Wonder, “we are nothing without stories”, could be said to be the primary message the film. Despite Elizabeth’s assertion that she is not interested in stories, only facts, the film steadfastly refuses to privilege verifiable facticity over the power of orally transmitted stories.
The film is considerably different from Donoghue’s novel in several ways. The framing device in the film is absent from the book. The wordy style of the novel, with a constant interior monologue, is replaced by the far more silent, overtly visual style of the film. The romance between Elizabeth and the journalist Will (Tom Burke) feels far more rushed and abrupt in the film, in contrast to the book in which their relationship is played out over the course of several pages of elaborate prose. In essence, both works play to the strengths of their particular styles of representation, prose and cinematic respectively.
Both the novel and film The Wonder are examples of the currently very popular genre of folk horror, a Gothic text in which the landscape, traditions, and culture that comprises the main context of the work plays a key role in the evolving narrative. The wildness of the fields that serve as the primary backdrop of the film, for example, could have sprung directly from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847). The film is set in a very isolated and forbidding part of rural Ireland and this contributes to the creation of a very macabre and chilling sense of dread within the viewers. Ireland here is presented as a place in which religious beliefs are unquestioned and regarded as absolute fact by the rustic inhabitants of this midlands setting. For this reason, Elizabeth is constantly being told by the Irish natives that she “does not understand” them, their customs, or way of life. Elizabeth’s inability to properly commune with the inhabitants of this Irish world in which she finds herself is conveyed when she misunderstands the O’Donnell family when they tell her that Anna’s brother had “gone over”. They mean that he had died whereas she interprets it to mean that he had emigrated. The fact that Elizabeth is English in a small Irish community further adds to her status as outsider and ‘other’ and serves to foreground the theme of colonial relations within the narrative.
In terms of location contributing to the overall themes and effect of the film, the house in which the O’Donnell’s live epitomises a very small, intimate setting which creates a general feeling of claustrophobia for both Elizabeth and the film’s audience. The film’s sense of dread and foreboding is further emphasised by the almost otherworldly score by Matthew Herbert that serves as an almost invisible character throughout the film. The claustrophobic and oppressive atmosphere that is created in the O’Donnell house and in the pub where Elizabeth is staying where she must endure the misogynistic gaze of its almost entirely male-dominated residents, is in keeping with the act of ‘watching’ that dominates the film. Whether that ‘watching’ refers to the function being performed by Elizabeth and the nun in the community or the general sense of a Foucauldian culture of surveillance that seems to prevail in this rural Irish community, the audience cannot escape the sense that every character in The Wonder is being watched and appraised by at least one other person in the story.
The central story of a child possibly starving herself has considerable significance and relevance for an Irish audience, most notably because it conjures up the cultural memory of the Great Famine that had ended only ten years before the film was set, and the ghost of the famine haunts The Wonder, in the narrative, the setting, and in the lives of most characters who have almost certainly lost loved ones in the event. Equally, the harrowing moment when Elizabeth force feeds Anna could be said to be an implicit reference to the Irish hunger strikers during the war of Independence, many of whom had food forcibly inserted into their bodies via tubes (most notoriously, this happened to Terence MacSwiney, the Mayor of Cork, who died whilst on hunger strike). And indeed, a historical link between the Great Famine and the protest strategy of hunger striking was previously noted in a poem by James Joyce, which takes as its subject the Irish War of Independence.
Equally, the theme of child abuse and its concealment by a family — a revelation that is uncovered near the climax of The Wonder — is very topical when one considers the numerous revelations in recent years concerning the abuse of children in various ‘home’ settings, whether they be religious or familial. Interestingly, on the former, although the negative impact of religiosity on Irish culture and people is starkly considered in this film, we are also given an ultimately sympathetic portrayal of a nun in the form of Elizabeth’s fellow ‘watcher’, and it is she who partially enables a somewhat happy ending to occur at the film’s conclusion. Thus, The Wonder can take credit for endeavouring to take a more complex approach to the representation of the Catholic Church than is, arguably, typical in contemporary Irish texts.
The need to care for children is an aspect of the film’s title that is given utterance near the end of the film when Will writes in his column that communities are too often neglectful when it comes to acknowledging “the wonder” that is all children. Because the narrative of The Wonder centres around trying to prevent a child from willingly departing the realm of physical existence and going to an indeterminate “other place”, I would argue too that the film can be read as a subtle reimagining of W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child”, a work that represents the removal of a child to a fairy land as a mournful event because the poem suggests the child has lost far more than they’ve gained because of such a departure. The film’s climax is conceivably a rational, non-fantastical play on Yeats’ poem’s final lines (For he comes, the human child,/To the waters and the wild/With a faery, hand in hand,/For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand). The Wonder can thus be interpreted as a cinematic palimpsest in which some of the major events and themes from Ireland’s nightmarish history are implicitly represented.
Moving beyond the national context, The Wonder deals, like many Gothic texts, with the porous nature of identity and subjectivity. This is symbolised by Anna’s tendency to invent different names for Elizabeth throughout the narrative (eventually alighting on the soubriquet of Mrs Lib). The film’s climax also contains a form of transformation undergone by Anna, also involving a symbolic change of name. The unstable nature of Anna’s subjectivity is suggested earlier in the film when it is revealed that she takes walks in her brother’s shoes. The Wonder could be regarded as belonging, to some extent, to the genre of romance too, purely because of the relationship between Elizabeth and Will. However, whether their attraction goes beyond the purely physical is debatable to say the least. After their first sexual encounter, both characters insist on thanking each other for what has just occurred. What is clear is that they both needed the release of orgasmic pleasure and that had just been provided by their sexual partner. The impression given is that these are two lost souls who are perpetually feeling the effects of bereavement – it is less clear whether the somewhat transactional nature of their relationship will persist beyond the journey into the Australian sunset.
Significantly, the publicity posters for The Wonder generally focus on the expressive face of Florence Pugh. This draws attention to the current star power of Pugh and her growing reputation as being one of the most preternaturally talented actors of her generation. Not surprisingly, Pugh gives a hauntingly memorable performance which balances a calm exterior with suggestions of broiling emotional intensity just under the surface. Like many memorable characters in literary or cinematic narratives that involve the possible presences of ghosts, hauntings, or other supernatural occurrences, the character of Elizabeth is an individual who is haunted before she ever comes to this community (we learn very early on in the story that she had relatively recently lost a baby three weeks after it was born and that this event also led to the end of her marriage). The always reliable Toby Jones gives a convincing portrayal of a zealot for whom the religious and the scientific are complementary as opposed to contradictory narratives of existence. Newcomer Kila Cassidy gives a memorable performance that treads the line between the human vulnerability and ethereal otherness. Ciaran Hinds is also on hand to provide his usual stoic performance as the local priest for whom the myth of Anna eating manna from heaven must be preserved as a means of bolstering religious authority in the wake of a famine that made many lose their faith in the Christian God. The relationship between Elaine Cassidy and her real life daughter Kila is tenderly evoked. It is clear that the mother wants what she believes is best for her daughter and suffers from the guilt of not preventing and then refusing to acknowledge the traumatic event Anna suffered several years before.
Despite an often slow moving pace and a tendency to occasionally have characters spell out aspects of the plot that could have been more powerfully conveyed via suggestion, The Wonder is a very effective inter-generic mix of psychodrama, Gothicism, and romance. The acting is generally of a very high calibre and the direction creates a cinematic work via which emotions and intellects are guaranteed to be stirred.
 Lelio was reportedly inspired by Jean Luc Godard’s film Le Mepris to use this metafictional device. See Eric Kohn, ‘Interview with Sebastián Lelio’, Indiewire. 2 Sep 2022. https://www.indiewire.com/2022/09/the-wonder-interview-florence-pugh-sebastian-lelio-1234757698/
Richtarick, Marilyn. (2004). ‘The Field Day Theatre Company’, in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth Century Irish Drama, ed. by Shaun Richards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 191-203.