Sebatian Lelio’s The Wonder (2022) makes a big deal about artifice. The Netflix film opens with a scene of a set being built, before actor Florence Pugh enters and introduces the movie. It’s clear that in pulling back the curtain, Lelio is interested in seeing how much the audience will buy into his film, given that they’ve been privy to its construction, as opposed to being immersed into it straightaway. Does a peek into the setting up of a narrative take away from its power? It’s a great opening scene for a film that deals with the construction of stories and the resulting sway they have over people.
The Wonder, based on Emma Donogue’s 2016 novel of the same name, follows English nurse Lib Wright (Pugh), tasked with investigating the case of Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy), a girl whose family claims she hasn’t eaten for four months. Lib must observe Anna and report her findings to a group of local dignitaries so that the story can either be confirmed as truth or revealed to be a lie.
Lib initially thinks that Anna’s family is telling the truth. Despite her careful, round-the-clock observation, which ensures that Anna isn’t eating undetected, the child continues to remain in perfect health. One day, however, Lib notices that Anna’s mother kisses her on the mouth, which leads her to suspect that this is how food is being passed between them, “like a bird”. To test out her theory, she forbids Anna’s family from seeing her and isolates the girl.
Lib is right — without her mother being able to pass her food, Anna’s condition starts to deteriorate owing to starvation. Having grown closer to Lib over the past few months, Anna eventually reveals to her that she was raped by her brother, who has since died. It’s Anna’s strict and conservative family who believes that she needs to fast — the sacrifice will enable her brother’s soul to be sent to heaven.
As Anna’s health worsens, Lib tries to get the local council to see that if the girl does not eat, she will die. They don’t believe her, preferring to think that God has been looking out for her this whole time. Meanwhile, Anna’s parents refuse to feed her, believing that if she dies, both their deceased children will go to heaven. This is where the film drives home the insidiousness of certain narratives, and how blind belief in them can be fatal. The villagers refuse to think logically or critically, putting their faith in God even at the cost of Anna’s life.
While Anna’s family is out, Lib escorts her out of the house and then sets fire to it. She tells the council that Anna died in the blaze and that her corpse disintegrated. Despite the flimsiness of the narrative, they take Lib at her word, owing to their guilt at having played a role in Anna’s ill-health.
Lib rechristens Anna as ‘Nan’ and convinces her that having been born anew, she can begin eating again. Nan, Lib and William (Tom Burke), a journalist who Lib fell in love with, pose as a family and sail to Sydney, where they can start a new life.