If you feel a sense of déjà vu watching Florence Pugh in The Wonder, it’s because we’ve been here before – sort of. Pugh’s first lead film role was in Lady Macbeth (2016), which was also set in the 1860s, and was also interested in wilful women and their appetites. It had the same sense of economy, the same blustery landscapes; Pugh all corset-waisted and billowy blue skirts. The two films even share a cinematographer (Ari Wegner, Oscar-nominated for The Power of the Dog) and writer (Alice Birch of Normal People and Conversations with Friends).
Despite these overlaps, The Wonder is entirely fresh – and equally brilliant. It is based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue, best known for her novel Room, adapted into an Oscar-winning film that starred Brie Larson as a young woman imprisoned in a shed with her young son. The Wonder is inspired by the phenomenon of fasting girls in the Victorian era, and shares Room’s concerns with captivity and maternity.
The film opens with Elizabeth “Lib” Wright (Pugh) on a ship from London to Ireland in 1862, ten years after the end of the Famine. Lib is a nurse who has been summoned to watch an 11-year-old girl, the headstrong Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy), who claims she hasn’t eaten for four months and is sustained by “manna from Heaven”. By contrast, Lib is hungry – both for the truth of the matter, and her next meal. The first time we see her she is eating with a sort of rhythmic determination, paying no attention to those around her. When Lib meets a rakish Daily Telegraph journalist, William Byrne (Tom Burke), the first thing he says to her is: “Are you eating for the patient as well as yourself?” Perhaps she is.
Wegner can imbue any landscape with quiet dread, and in her hands The Wonder looks both beautiful and savage. The camera lingers on a death portrait of a lost brother with painted-on eyes; a molar spat from a bloody gum. The room in which Anna resides is dark, green and sludgy, like a fish tank given over to algae. Adding to the sense of eeriness is Matthew Herbert’s panoramic score, modern but not anachronistic, which often cuts out to let the howling wind take over.
Pugh is as controlled and utterly commanding as ever – even (especially?) in a bonnet. The 13-year-old newcomer Cassidy (the real-life daughter of Elaine Cassidy, who here plays her mother) moves between compliance and compassion without labouring either, and does well to hold the screen alongside a forceful Pugh. In a world of priests and mysticism and muttered prayers, Lib is a no-nonsense presence, physically robust and self-reliant. At one point Kitty, Anna’s elder sister, tells Lib that the last thing Anna ate was Holy Communion.
“So just water and wheat?” Lib asks. “No miss, it’s not just water and wheat, it’s the body and blood of Christ,” Kitty says. “That’s a story, Kitty,” Lib replies. “I’m looking for facts.”
The Wonder is preoccupied with that word, “story”. Its director, Sebastián Lelio, has taken the curious decision to open the film with an odd, self-referential monologue. “Hello,” says the unseen narrator, as the camera pans from a cavernous, modern set to Lib, aboard a “ship”, revealing the conceit of filmmaking. “This is the beginning, the beginning of a film called The Wonder. The people you are about to meet, the characters, believe in their stories with complete devotion. We are nothing without stories, and so we invite you to believe in this one.” Rather, the effect is alienating. (This is one of only two missteps, the other being an unnecessary and distracting subplot involving Lib’s opium habit and ritualistic self-harm.)
Later, the narrator is revealed to be Kitty. She looks to camera knowingly as the voiceover says: “Hello again. I told you, we are nothing without stories.” Byrne, with whom Lib and Anna form a sort of ragtag family unit, is there to write his own story about the fasting girl. Lib tells Anna what a privilege it was to nurse dying soldiers during the Crimean War: “They talk. They tell their stories.” Will Anna, confined to her bed by weakness, tell Lib her story? And, The Wonder seems to ask, whose version of it should we believe?
[See also: She Said is a myopic, timid and trivial attempt at a #MeToo movie]