The Lord works in mysterious ways, Christians are fond of telling us. More mysterious still is the matter of faith, a uniquely human idea which operates on the principle that phenomena we can’t explain are true, not because we understand them but because we don’t need to.
Set in an almost medieval-feeling 1862, “The Wonder” asks audiences to ponder the meaning of a miracle. Is it possible, as the devout residents of a small Irish community believe, for an 11-year-old girl to survive for four months without food? The child, Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy), suddenly stopped eating, and swears that since then, she’s been sustained by “manna from heaven.” As word of this “wonder” spread, pilgrims have come to see the phenomenon for themselves. Local authorities understandably have their doubts, calling for an English nurse, Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), to observe the situation.
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An outwardly stoic but inwardly bluesy soul who may herself be in need of saving, Lib is a modern-minded woman of science. She’s confident that Anna couldn’t be this healthy without eating on the sly, but there’s no way to prove it. (Technically, there is, crass as it may sound: Instead of focusing on what goes in to Anna’s mouth, she might easily put the matter to rest by examining what, if anything, comes out the other end. In any case, the movie works better if it’s one person’s faith against another’s.) Lib insists on logic, which means some kind of trickery must be involved, whereas the town doctor (Toby Jones) and his all-male council (including the area priest, played by Ciarán Hinds) believe in divine intervention.
With “The Wonder,” Sebastián Lelio, the gifted Chilean director responsible for “Gloria” and its English-language remake, “Gloria Bell” (as well as 2018 Oscar winner “A Fantastic Woman”), has delivered an evenhanded but ultimately preposterous adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel, co-written by the author herself (with an assist from Alice Birch). The book was published within the past decade but makes every effort to evoke its mid-19th-century milieu, as does Lelio, who pushes the coarse handmade costumes, dreary candlelit interiors and mud-mired Midland locations so heavily that you way well forget you’re streaming this Netflix original on an iPad.
Then how to explain the film’s Brechtian framing device? Lelio opens on a soundstage, drawing our attention to the artifice: “Hello, this is a movie called ‘The Wonder,’” a woman welcomes (supporting actor Niamh Algar, so compelling in tiny doses, you wish she had more to do here). Movies aren’t real, this unusual introduction reminds, but their emotions can be. “We invite you to believe in this one,” continues the narrator, as DP Ari Wegner (“Lady Macbeth”) tracks left from a farmhouse set to the hold of a ship to find Pugh, deep in character.
It’s not clear what the film gains from this self-conscious setup, especially since Lelio proceeds to give his mostly female cast sufficient room to make their characters feel true. Once Lib arrives in Ireland, the movie commits to her reality. Just a few years earlier, the Irish Potato Famine pummeled the region, starving roughly a million, and food is still precious in most people’s minds. “The Wonder” doesn’t emphasize this overly, though you can sense it in Lib’s frustration when her employers call her away from whatever gruel was to be her first meal at the boardinghouse where she’s staying (a place with nearly a dozen hungry mouths to feed).
Lib soon learns that she’s not the only nurse they’ve engaged, though the other is no medical expert; she’s a nun. The two women are to take turns watching Anna and report on their findings. However politely serious Lelio’s approach, it’s a common enough horror-movie trope to send in an expert to examine someone exhibiting supernatural behavior, à la “The Exorcist” or “The Sixth Sense.” But “The Wonder” is not a horror movie. Nor is it the kind of film where a skeptic is swayed by what she sees (another familiar device in such films, where the director can bend the rules of nature to suit their point). When Lib first meets Anna, she’s impressed by the girl’s conviction. Believers often enjoy a serenity that atheists cannot, able to offload their anxieties to a higher power. Cassidy, who so eerily embodies Anna, taps into that peace. But the girl is not without secrets.
To make her study more scientific, Lib forbids any kind of physical contact between Anna and her parents. Almost immediately, the girl’s health starts to slump. Here, the movie seems to imply that Lib is justified in her means: She’s getting to the Truth. But it’s her rule that’s endangering Anna’s life, and the way she resolves the situation (with the help of a London journalist, played by Tom Burke) is ethically corrupt and downright inexcusable — a third party deciding what’s right for someone else’s child.
The “right thing” is relative, especially when religion is involved, and unpacking Lib’s decision surely would have made for a stronger film — something like Ian McEwan’s “The Children Act” perhaps, in which a judge must choose whether to intervene on behalf of a terminally ill child whose Jehovah’s Witnesses parents are refusing him treatment. Instead, Lelio gives us scenes of Lib sipping opium alone in her room, forlornly caressing a pair of baby booties — a reminder of the personal tragedies she carries with her and a justification of sorts for the film’s wildly miscalculated ending, wherein characters who’d been stuck living one narrative are able to reinvent themselves in a fresh one of their own choosing.
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