The Wonder cements once and for all, this is Florence Pugh’s world and we’re all just living in it. Historical fiction isn’t a genre for everyone. At it’s worst, it can paint a woefully inadequate picture of people in previous generations. At its best, it can contextualize historical time periods for a modern audience. The Wonder is a gripping look at a dark period in Irish history, told through an English nurse searching for truth.
The Wonder is based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue. The story follows Lib, an English nurse sent to investigate a young girl, Anna O’Donnell, who claims to be sustained only on “manna from Heaven”. What follows is part psychological thriller, part historical commentary, part character study, and part spiritual evaluation. You know it’s about to get serious when Toby Jones appears in any movie as a villain.
It’s never been in dispute that Florence Pugh is one of the most talented actresses working today. As the star of this historic epic, she is magnetic. She brilliantly portrays a woman at the intersection of science and faith. Her compassion and fierce quest for authenticity is clear in each scene. She brings an uncommon humanity to a character who under other circumstances would not be quite as sympathetic. Even when she’s wrong, she’s deeply relatable.
This story is based on the phenomenon of “fasting girls”, young girls who claimed to go months without food. Though this story wasn’t based on one case in particular, the most famous recorded incident of a fasting girl was a Welsh girl named Sarah Jacob. These stories provide an opportunity to reflect on the nature of religion and spirituality, and how they can be used to coerce or uplift, depending on who has the power.
Taking place in the years following the Great Famine, this story is also a sobering look at Irish history. It’s clear that there isn’t just one villain here. The villain is the lethal combination of a church and government with unchecked power over people. One can’t help but feel deeply for Anna, a victim of the perfect combination of circumstances. In many ways, this story is a small snapshot of Irish history as a whole. Kíla Lord Cassidy’s Anna is a stand-in for a nation that has been the subject of derision and disrespect for generations, before taking hold of its own destiny.
The use of visuals is stunning. Throughout the movie, the expansive shots invite viewers to consider the beauty of Ireland itself. Through the focus on nature and setting, Ireland itself becomes an essential character in this story. Not a moment of screen-time is wasted. Rather, the focus on the scenery gives even more time for the viewers to consider the story being presented, and their own thoughts and feelings about which way things are going.
The Wonder is a gorgeous adaptation of an important story to tell. This represents the best of the historical fiction genre. There are no easy answers presented here. Rather, we are all invited to share Lib’s journey, and examine our own biases and pre-conceived notions about the world around us. You just may be surprised by where you land when the story is said and done. This was a classic Toronto International Film Festival feature, that’s sure to leave a lasting impact.
The Wonder is in theatres November 2, 2022, and streams on Netflix November 16, 2022.