Is there virtue in suffering? In certain sects of Christianity, it is believed that suffering is the highest honour: making you not only worthy of Sainthood, but also closer to the Holy Spirit Himself.
Perhaps it was this devotion to suffering which led to a phenomenon in the Victorian era known as the “fasting girl,” wherein a number of young girls in the 1800s claimed to survive for weeks — or even months — without food. Many of these girls became local celebrities in their own right, with many seeing their suffering as a sign of religious sanctity, while some of these girls even appeared to have stigmata (injuries reminiscent of Christ’s crucifixion wounds on his hands and feet).
Research by historians like Joan Jacobs Brumberg suggests that a number of the “fasting girls” are some of history’s earliest examples of anorexia, but in the disturbing case of Sarah Jacob, one of the most notorious “fasting girls” of the time, the eleven-year-old ended up dying of starvation while her parents were convicted of manslaughter for refusing to make her eat — despite the begging and insistence of medical professionals that she was dying.
The Wonder appears to take a lot of inspiration from Sarah Jacob’s tragic tale, and at its core, questions the relationship between religious devotion and suffering. At the beginning of the drama movie, a female voice implores us via voiceover to “believe in” the story they are telling in this film.
On one level, this transcendent fourth-wall-breaking feels gimmicky — maybe even a little bit self-indulgent on the filmmaker’s part — but perhaps that’s the point. After all, as the movie based on a true story progresses, it becomes clear that The Wonder is a cautionary tale about the nature of belief and blind faith.
When you think of faith and belief, you usually associate that with warmth, optimism and hope — but instead, we have the gothic, Wuthering Heights-like moors, a cool colour-pallette and a constant sense of unease and dread: whether it be through knowing glances at the camera, the unforgiving wind of post-Famine Ireland, or the increasingly-laboured breaths of young Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), as she starves to death before our very eyes.
The compelling performances from Florence Pugh and Cassidy are what cement this thriller movie as something special, but the disturbing cinematography and soundscape make it so that no matter how uncomfortable you feel, no matter how disturbing it is, you simply can’t tear your eyes away — and that’s a testament to Sebastián Lelio’s directing skills.
In The Wonder, Pugh plays hard-headed skeptic and nurse Lib Wright, who is sent from England to a small village in Ireland to ‘watch’ the titular ‘Wonder’: eleven-year-old Anna who, it is claimed, hasn’t eaten in four months. We’ve seen Pugh in roles involving countless emotional outbursts and wearing her heart on her sleeve, but here, she seamlessly steps into a more reserved, matronly role as a nurse who, as the film goes on, becomes more attached to Anna and determined to not just unravel the ‘truth’ about her fasting, but also save her life.
Grief and death are thick and heavy in this movie, as it’s quickly established that both Lib and Anna’s mother, Rosaleen, have experienced loss: Lib with her baby, and Rosaleen with her son — and Anna’s older brother, who appears, ironically, to be treated with a level of revere usually reserved for Saints.
The Wonder isn’t so much a critique of religion itself, but rather a critique of what happens when one’s belief in religion overrides common sense and threatens to put the lives of others in danger. As someone who hasn’t read the novel the film was based on, I was unsure for the majority of the movie about whether Anna was actually telling the truth.
She certainly seemed to believe in the higher cause of her fast, with Cassidy portraying her unrelenting piety in a way that left me equally as disturbed and empathetic towards her. The ‘possessed or otherwise creepy child’ trope is well-used in horror movies, but what made Cassidy’s portrayal of Anna remarkable is that underneath her obsessive prayer rituals and commitment to her fast, there was a level of innocence and vulnerability which kept the character grounded in reality.
And honestly, I think the fact that this film (mostly) kept its grip in reality, with Anna’s fasting not being attributable to a supernatural cause, made it a better horror than it would’ve been if they departed from that realism. The horror and tragedy in this movie isn’t rooted in religious motifs and jumpscares, but the fact that blind faith and misguided ideas on repentance and sin made it so that this girl was doomed to death by the very people who were meant to protect her.
It’s hard to put a film like The Wonder into words, because it’s less of an action movie and more of a collection of quiet, increasingly-disturbing moments which snowball and accumulate, leaving you just as exasperated and desperate as Lib.
I’m usually not a fan of movies that preach a lesson to me, and tell me to feel a certain way about things, but nobody can dispute that, with the rise in anti-vaccination rhetoric and the far-right’s marriage with Evangelical rhetoric, the message of this film is more important than ever.
The Wonder review
Along with its Brontë-esque landscapes, the beauty of The Wonder is in the subtly-brilliant performances of its leads.