When it comes to a historical drama, I can be a moth to a bright light. Hence, when scrolling Netflix offerings, I came upon The Wonder. My cursory glance at synopsis indicated that it is set in nineteenth century Ireland, focuses on an English nurse Elizabeth “Lib” Wright (Florence Pugh), and that she has to contend with what locals believe to be a miracle. Perhaps the word “contend” was not used, but it somewhat describes the proceedings. Given my stated title of Catholic film reviewer, this description cinched my choice for the evening. The result was strange and surprising, in that order.
We begin The Wonder on the strange side of the ledger. Instead of the nineteenth century, we get a modern movie set and a voice over by Kitty O’Donnell (Niamh Algar) explaining that the people involved in what you are about to see believed it to be absolutely true. It is 1862 in Ireland, and the country is still recovering from the Famine that had ravaged it for the better part of a decade beginning in the 1840s. This is the backdrop into which Elizabeth, a nurse who had helped tend soldiers during the Crimean War, is sent to the hinterland of Ireland (truthfully, most of the country fits that description). She goes there at the summons of a town council to observe Kitty’s sister, Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy). She is not an ordinary girl. She has been fasting for months and exhibiting no signs of weakening. The locals believe it to be a miracle, and the purpose of Elizabeth being there is essentially to prove this is the case. She is to monitor the child’s vital signs, record any other activity, but do nothing else. She is not alone in this venture as there has also been a nun called in for the same purpose, Sister Michael (Josie Walker), and they are to work in shifts. We do not see much of what Sister Michael does, instead focusing exclusively on Elizabeth. With her medical training, she is certain there is no way that Anna could be surviving solely on “manna from Heaven,” as the girl claims. Her first inkling that her hunch is correct is when she witnesses the elaborate ritual with which Anna’s mother, Rosaleen O’Donnell (Elaine Cassidy), tucks her daughter in at night. Elizabeth suspects that there is food being passed to Anna with Rosaleen’s kisses, and orders the family to have no contact with Anna during the whole of the observation in order to prove her theory. The O’Donnell’s shock over this bidding is not the only issue with which Elizabeth must contend. First, there are the locals who stubbornly cling to the belief that Divine intervention is keeping Anna alive, and there are many on the council that want this to be confirmed. One of the members who is not entirely on board with this notion, though sympathetic to it, is the village physician, Dr. McBrearty (Toby Jones). He is often dismissive of Elizabeth’s expertise, despite her experience in the Crimea, and instead offers wild answers to the situation like the Earth’s magnetism or vapors keeping Anna alive. He also will not allow Anna to be taken from her family completely to be watched in a clinical setting. Finally, there is William Byrne (Tom Burke), a local kid turned London journalist, who pesters Elizabeth constantly wanting to write a story. When the article comes out, he blames the family and community for what he calls a “murder by degrees,” which only makes life more difficult for Elizabeth. These are not the only stresses in her life. In her spare time, partly as there is nothing else to do in the village, she takes what I presume to be laudanum. This is where my history knowledge comes in handy. She uses it to deal with the death of her child, the passing of which had caused her husband to leave. Her other coping mechanism is to start an affair with William. The loss of the child part, though, is what triggers the bond with Anna, with Elizabeth using the nickname “Nan” for her charge, and Anna referring to Elizabeth as “Lib.” This makes watching Anna deteriorate all the more unbearable for Elizabeth, who continues to tell anyone who will listen that the child will die. The stubborn ones on the council insist that she do nothing but continue to watch, even after she finally presents her theory that it is Rosaleen who had been feeding Anna like a bird. In desperation, Elizabeth attempts to force a feeding tube down Anna’s throat, but immediately regrets it. Instead, Elizabeth turns to trying to understand why Anna refuses to eat. With the trust gained between them, Anna reveals that her brother had raped her as a child, but later died of a mysterious illness. Despite this awful act, she confesses to still love him, and her fast was started as a way of alleviating his place in hell. Between this notion, and the ideas of practically everyone else in the village, Elizabeth decides she must do something else to save Anna. While Sister Michael and the rest of the family go to Mass, Elizabeth smuggles Anna out of the house and leaves her at a pre-arranged spot to be picked up by William, who is to take the girl to a meeting place in Dublin. Elizabeth then goes back to the house and burns it down. When brought before the council, she tells them that the blaze had been an accident, and that Anna had died in the fire. With reservations, they buy the story. Elizabeth is then free to leave, and her, Anna, and William emigrate to Australia. We then end with one last shot of the movie set, and Kitty in modern clothes, for some reason.
Hopefully, if you read that synopsis, you might see why this Catholic reviewer would have been drawn to The Wonder. Some of the hoped-for miraculous nature of the story came through in the description on Netflix, which clinched my decision. The movie turned out differently than I expected. To be clear, it is perfectly possible for God to sustain a person as Anna claimed, without food being smuggled by her mother. It has happened before, and it will happen again. It is always incredible to me what people will believe and will not believe when it comes to faith. If God can create everything, which speaks to what the lukewarm creationists or intelligent design crowd will tell you, why can He not keep a girl alive simply with a thought or actual manna from Heaven. I have to say that I also admire Anna for forgiving her brother for the awful things he did. Despite her fast being wrongly footed, her charity is in the best of keeping with Christian teachings. On a specifically Catholic note, I also appreciate how the Church is portrayed. This comes in the form of Sister Michael and Father Thaddeus (Ciarán Hinds). There is sometimes a gap between what those in the pew believe and what the Church practices. People want miracles, and that is understandable. One of the hallmarks of the Church, though, and this is something I have come to value, is that they do not easily proclaim something miraculous. There is a strict vetting process, so too with naming people saints, and they only make these proclamations after intense scrutiny. In this vein, though Sister Michael does not entirely back Elizabeth’s claims about what Rosaleen had been doing, it is Father Thaddeus who suggests there might be reason to be concerned about Anna’s health when no one else on the council will say it. The majority of this movie is pretty dull and hard to watch, but at least there was that moment for this Catholic reviewer.
I am guessing that me saying that the Church is portrayed in a largely positive light in The Wonder will not immediately make you want to see it. Neither would I say that you should watch it. Aside from moving slowly, there are also the awful coping mechanisms Elizabeth turns to, including a scene where they show her masturbating. It is not graphic, but entirely unnecessary. I would skip this one.