In the opening moments of Sebastián Leilo’s Netflix thriller The Wonder, a woman’s voice asks in voiceover for the viewer to remember that everyone in this story was coming from a place of earnest belief. As she speaks, the camera pans over a sound stage, revealing the plywood and metal structure of the film’s sets. The voice tells us to believe, but the visual undermines the suspension of disbelief with a peak behind the curtain. It’s a conundrum, one that establishes the film’s unsettling tone early on, while also discouraging viewers from engaging with it. Why would Leilo throw such a stumbling block into his own path? That’s just one of this movie’s mysteries.
Midsommar and Don’t Worry Darling star Florence Pugh leads The Wonder as Mrs. Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, an English nurse who served in the Crimean War. In 1862 Ireland, she’s hired to bring an impartial, professional point of view to the case of Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy), an Irish girl who hasn’t eaten since her 11th birthday, four months ago. When she arrives in the Irish Midlands, Lib is shocked to see that the town council has hired a second observer: a nun named Sister Michael (Josie Walker), who has no medical training. When Lib asks why, the innkeeper’s wife shrugs and says “Welcome to Ireland.”
For two weeks, Lib is meant to spend eight hours a day watching Anna to make sure she doesn’t eat, then taking her vitals to document her well-being. At their first meeting, Anna tells Lib that she doesn’t need food because she lives off “manna from Heaven.” Then, as Lib starts putting controls on the experiment in order to get a scientific result, Anna’s health rapidly deteriorates, and it seems possible that she’s about to die. Anna’s deeply Catholic sister Kitty O’Donnell (Niamh Algar) resents the intrusion, particularly Lib’s attempts to graft science onto the mysteries of faith. She hates outsiders so much, it seems, that she’s willing to sacrifice Anna to keep their village’s secrets.
Figuring out what “manna from Heaven” is drives the film’s absorbing first half, which plays like a period mystery. Lib is a hard-ass with a heart of gold and a secret addiction to what’s presumed to be morphine syrup, slotting her into the “tortured detective” role in the case of the girl who doesn’t eat, and yet does not die. Lib needs Anna to be a fake in order to reinforce her belief in science. But the more time she spends with the girl, the fonder she grows of this troubled preteen mystic, and the more invested she becomes in keeping the girl alive.
Newspaper journalist Will Byrne (Tom Burke), a local boy who’s back in town reporting on the case, is less sympathetic, and less tactful — he’s willing to call Anna a fraud in print, while Lib refuses to make any definitive statements until the “viewing” is complete. Meanwhile, Dr. McBrearty (Toby Jones), the provincial doctor who brought Lib to Ireland, is working backward from a place of miracles, trying to use science to support his faith, rather than disprove it. Dr. McBrearty, like the rest of Ireland, badly needs a miracle.
The Wonder takes place a decade after the Great Famine, and the ghosts of all those hungry souls form a haunting backdrop to Anna’s self-imposed starvation. Tragedy has touched everyone in this tale: Although Lib claims she has no children, she carries around a pair of knitted baby booties; meanwhile, Anna’s dead older brother is a constant, invisible presence in her sickroom. The belief that this life is only a temporary stop on the way to eternal reward is all that’s keeping some of the characters going, while others have dedicated their lives to helping others in the here and now.
While most of them are underdeveloped in the script (to be fair, they may get a more extensive airing in the Emma Donoghue novel this movie is adapting), there are nuggets of ideas in The Wonder for history buffs to follow like so many breadcrumbs. Anorexia Mirabilis, Catholic martyrdom, the development of modern nursing — these are all fascinating topics to research. There’s also an interesting parallel between the all-male town council’s unwillingness to listen to Lib about what’s best for Anna, and contemporary politicians rejecting women’s knowledge about their own bodies in pursuit of control. The idea of patriarchal faith as misogynistic subjugation is the scariest idea in the film — and also the most half-baked, which is too bad, because it’s startlingly relevant in the world of 2022.
In spite of the director’s bizarre attempt to undermine the story, the film’s location photography does cast an atmospheric spell, with its images of rolling hills, purple heather, green moss, and waving brown grasses. Pugh, a costume-drama veteran through projects like Lady Macbeth and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, carries the film on her character’s strong back. But 13-year-old Cassidy is the standout here as Anna, a vulnerable girl serving — not entirely unwillingly — as a living symbol of penitence for grown-up sins.
In the end, there’s a psychological explanation for what’s going on with Anna. Once the “holy secret” is prematurely revealed, however, the story loses both its intrigue and its driving force. The vagueness in the script — adapted by Leilo and Lady Macbeth screenwriter Alice Birch — flips from asset to liability in its second half, as thematic threads sputter and burn out without plot points to sustain them. The characters’ already opaque psychologies spin out in frustrating ways, and the film’s bouts of fourth-wall breaking overexplain some points while neglecting others. It’s true that Lib smashing against the brick wall of blind faith is an essential part of the story, but at some point, The Wonder crosses a line between eerie ambiguity and aimless floundering.
The Wonder is streaming on Netflix now.