Culture Desk

“The Wonder”: lies and miracles in the aftermath of the Great Irish Famine

``The Wonder``: lies and miracles in the aftermath of the Great Irish Famine

Florence Pugh illuminates Sebastian Lelio’s film, which relentlessly questions its characters and its viewers.
The sight of Florence Pugh displaying her expressive power in an ambitious and complex role is reason enough to recommend watching The Wonder, Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s eighth feature film, which Netflix released on November 16. It’s not the only one. Set in Ireland in the aftermath of the Great Famine, The Wonder ventures to the borderline between belief and madness, relentlessly questioning its characters and its viewers.
The film’s prologue takes place in a film studio, where we discover the film’s first setting, a ship’s cabin, a way of inviting us to travel with Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), an English nurse who served in the Crimean War alongside Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), a historical figure and pioneer of modern nursing. She leaves London on a winter’s day in 1862, gas lighting and railways for the muddy paths of the Irish interior.
Waiting for her in a small village is Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy), a teenage girl who claims she hasn’t eaten in months and is subsisting on divine grace. Lib Wright has been invited by the local gentry to establish the miraculous nature or otherwise of Anna’s survival. The parish priest (Ciaran Hinds) and the doctor (Toby Jones) would like to believe it, one for the glory of the Catholic Church, the other because he has discovered a new phenomenon.
 

Mystical paroxysms

 
Florence Pugh, at first purely impressive, gets carried away in the flood of collective (the Great Famine, whose wounds are still fresh) and private (the secrets of the O’Donnell family) suffering until she loses her scientific rigour.
Between the brilliant young woman, kept in a subordinate position by the rules of Victorian society, and the teenager in the grip of mystical paroxysms (played with infinite delicacy by the young Kila Lord Cassidy), the chasm gradually closes over the course of beautiful meditative sequences, which often take the form of slow walks on the paths that criss-cross the Irish moors.
There is something a little too square in the way The Wonder closes its story; the film perhaps lacks a little bit of doubt, of uncertainty. This frustration, which comes at the very end of the film, is not enough to erase the wonder that preceded it.
 

Interview extract of the filmmaker

Why did you make a film about belief?
“This project was a great opportunity to explore the role of fiction and narratives in our lives, as well as to find a way to introduce the film itself into this questioning, as a fiction machine, which triggers a kind of belief in the audience…”
 
What is the difference between an artist, who asks us to believe in his story, and a religious or political leader?
“In The Wonder I try to make the viewer active. I invite them to believe in the story, while at the same time exposing them to the mechanics of the narrative [the story itself, set in 1862, is framed by sequences that expose the reconstructed settings]. So, you’ll see characters trapped in stories, and others inventing new stories, new ways of reading reality. But you have been warned: I will count to three, and I ask you to suspend your disbelief.”

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