The Wonder, Sebastián Lelio

Sebastián Lelio’s ‘The Wonder’ Trashes History

What we have with The Wonder is a film that begins by discussing a historical crime and ends up committing one – or at least the narrative equivalent.

The Wonder
Sebastián Lelio
16 November 2022

As the opening credits of Sebastian Lelio’s The Wonder roll, the camera pans across an empty film set. An unseen narrator announces that we’re about to see a film called, yes, The Wonder. Its characters, she says, believe deeply in their stories, and “we are nothing without stories.” She then situates us in this story. The year, she tells us, is 1862, not long after the Great Irish Famine, and Ireland is still enraged at England’s complicity in numberless Irish deaths.  

There’s a lot of knowingness – about films, stories, and maybe even history – deployed here. Before we can unpack any of it, however, we’re hurried onto a ship heading from England to Ireland. If we’re to take The Wonder on its terms, we need to mind the story that follows. And so, spoilers and all, here it is.

On the ship is Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), a doughty English nurse hired by the elders of a rural Irish village to help solve a mystery.  It’s claimed that Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy), the 11-year-old daughter of devout cotters, is subsisting on prayer alone. No food has passed her lips in four months, but she remains rosy-cheeked and healthy. Lib’s assignment is to watch Anna night and day and determine if she is sneaking food. Whether God is miraculously at work will be determined empirically. 

Lib is recently returned from the bloody battlefield laboratory of the Crimean War, where she learned, from Florence Nightingale herself, the most current and scientific medical practices. Lib is grim, rational, and determined to find the truth. She’s a humorless Sherlock Holmes in a bodice and layers of blue crinoline. Lib proceeds to watch over Anna in the O’Donnells’ dimly lit cottage, where the family speaks in pious, Gaelic-spattered mutterings. We’re in the peaty precincts of a rural Ireland that hasn’t changed a whit in a thousand years.

The contest between science and religion is no contest at all. Lib quickly guesses that Anna’s mother may be passing her food when she kisses her on the mouth at waking and bedtime. Could this be the “heavenly manna” that Anna claims is her sole nourishment?  Good empiricist that she is, Lib changes one variable – she banishes the family from Anna’s bedside – and the output changes. Anna begins to waste away. 

Although all agree that the possibility of a miracle has been disproved, the elders, for unexplained motives, direct Lib to continue what is now a death watch. Anna, still committed to the story of her miracle and now unable to surreptitiously take food, will be allowed to starve herself to death. Having quickly solved a spiritual mystery, Lib is next faced with a psychological puzzle: Why is this girl starving herself to death?

Lib now deploys even more up-to-date tools of modernity. By sensitively questioning Anna and putting together some clues about an absent older brother, she gets Anna to reveal that he had sexually abused her. Anna’s simulation of a miracle, and now her self-starvation, are, with the creepy connivance of her parents, meant to purify Anna of her supposed sin, save her brother from damnation, and eliminate Anna as a witness to her brother’s crime. Lib gently talks Anna toward a revelation of trauma, guilt, and repression. We’ve quickly gone from medieval miracle tale to Freudian case history. 

Yet, we’ve only scratched the surface of Lib’s psychotherapeutic skills. With a kind of analytic jiu-jitsu, Lib deftly enables Anna to drop her old identity and step forward as “Nan”, free of the crushing psychic burden that her family and religion have imposed on her. Having liberated Anna/Nan’s mind, Lib must free her from the old Irish world that imprisons her. Lib sloshes a bucket of what looks like gasoline around the O’Donnells’ grim cottage and burns it to the ground. (Never mind that neither gasoline nor paraffin would have been available on an Irish farm in 1862 or that no one seems to know or care whether the other O’Donnells were incinerated in the blaze.) 

With everyone believing that Anna has died in the fire, she, as Nan, is now free to leave. Nan boards a ship to Australia with her new family of Lib and Will, a diasporic Irish reporter for a London tabloid whom Lib has taken up with. We last see Nan, cutlery in hand, about to tuck into a shipboard dinner. 

The framing device that began The Wonder reappears. The narrator, now embodied, oddly, by an actress who played one of the minor characters, stares at us from the same film set and intones, “In, out,” “In, out.”

Are we being ushered out of The Wonder‘s story? Out of Ireland? As far as The Wonder is concerned, you should definitely get out of Ireland. Its Irish are ignorant, superstitious, incest-inclined peasants who would starve their daughter to conceal a shameful truth. In the face of such backwardness, is there any choice but to change your name and move to Australia? And, while you’re at it, burn it all down behind you?

In a film that explicitly invokes Irish history, what does this tell us? Is its message that the Famine was a matter of the benighted Irish starving themselves to death? That all they needed was a dose of Lib’s brisk English rationalism to break the bonds of superstition and save themselves? The film blunders into this nonsense because it doesn’t take the past seriously. 

This lack of historical sense is responsible for the anachronistic, aptly-named Lib. The Wonder wants us to know that she is liberated in exactly the ways Anna is oppressed; we’re pointedly shown that Lib’s appetites for food and sex are healthily intact. She does have her troubles – the loss of an infant and a vanished husband. When we see her taking laudanum to soothe the pain of these losses, these scenes are shot to make her addiction look like a sexy form of self-care.

It’s useful to compare the fictional Lib with a ready-to-hand historical counterpart. Florence Nightingale battled superstition with science and liberated herself from Victorian assumptions about a woman’s place, but she was also deeply, even mystically, religious and likely chaste her entire life. Florence Nightingale was radically modern for her time, but Lib Wright is a creature of the present fantastically projected onto the past.   

The Wonder is no more serious about religion than it is about history. The film doesn’t for a minute accept that a seeming miracle could be a miracle, or that belief could be sincere. The shadowy mysteries of faith disappear under the klieg lights of Lib’s rationalism. Religion is just a pretext for oppression, but not to worry, that can be easily exposed and overcome on the way to a new self. Despite its setting and subject, The Wonder is sublimely disinterested in history and religion.  It’s just another trauma film. It delivers the all-too-familiar 21st-century trauma story dressed up in 19th-century Irish drag. 

What we have with The Wonder is a film that begins by discussing a historical crime and ends up committing one – or at least the narrative equivalent. The Wonder colonizes historical Ireland to tell yet again the familiar modern story of rationality overcoming superstition in the service of personal liberation. Although The Wonder presents itself as shrewdly self-conscious about the artificiality of stories, there is no hint that it’s on to itself about this one. We are left with two possibilities: The Wonder is a deeply cynical artifact, or it’s entirely clueless about itself.  It’s hard to say which is more depressing.