Spoilers ahead for the end of The wonder.
Florence Pugh’s latest historical drama, The wonder, tells the story of Anna, an 11-year-old Irish girl who reportedly stops eating but miraculously stays alive and well – she says she survives on “manna from heaven”. A nurse, Lib (Pugh), is sent to watch Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy) to see if she actually survives without food or water.
Related to The wonder by Emma Donoghue, the film, directed by Sebastián Lelio, takes an innovative approach to the story that begins with breaking the fourth wall. It begins with a pan across a large warehouse full of film equipment.
“Hello. This is the beginning,” says one woman, actress Niamh Algar, who plays Anna’s older sister, Kitty. “The beginning of a movie called The wonder. The people you will meet, the characters, believe in their stories with utter devotion. Weare are nothing without stories. And that’s why we invite you to believe in them. It’s 1862. We left England for Ireland. The Great Famine still looms large and the Irish blame England for the devastation. There’s a nurse sitting there. An English nurse traveling all alone. And we’ll start with her.”
Speaking of the opening, director Lelio explains, “I thought it was important for the film itself to say to the viewer, ‘Listen, you’re going to be exposed to the power of fiction, your disbelief will be shattered. And then you’ll be kindly reminded that hopefully you believed in the film fervently, just as the characters believe in their own stories.'”
He continues: “It is also a film about the collision between reason and magical thinking or science and extreme religiosity, between spiritual and intellectual elasticity versus fanaticism. In that sense, this little frame tells the viewer, ‘What do you think? Are you fixed in your position? Or are you willing to change, adapt and evolve? What kind of viewer are you?'”
Only at the end does the viewer return to the modern film set; the majority of The wonder issued entirely in Ireland in 1862. There are a few brief breaks in the fourth wall of Niamh Algar’s Kitty, but it mostly focuses on the story of Lib and Anna.
Lib, a nurse who believes in science, is determined to find out how Anna survives without food. She soon isolates Anna from her family – and the girl actually begins to starve. Lib realizes what happened: Anna survived on food that her mother passed on through kisses.
Lib also learns why Anna was convinced to join the religious fast. Anna’s brother had died four months earlier and he had abused her for years. Anna’s mother blames her for her brother’s death, leading Anna to believe that she can save her brother from eternal damnation by sacrificing her own life (through fasting).
When Lib tries to convince the council overseeing her watch that Anna is dying and that the mother is involved in keeping her alive, they fail to step in to save her. So Lib decides to fake her death and hires her journalist friend to keep Anna, now Nan, safe. Lib burns down Anna’s house, tells the council that the girl has died, and then meets up with Will and Anna.
At the very end, the film returns to the framing device of the modern set. The final scene features Lib, Will and Anna (now Nan) on a ship bound for Australia. They are having dinner and Anna eats slowly. The film then pans away from the scene to return to the film set and actress Niamh Algar, no longer dressed as her character Kitty, stands there in all black.
She whispers, “In. Out. In. Out.”
The four words are a reference to the thaumatrope that Will shows Anna earlier in the film, of a bird that appears to be caged and free at the same time. “Is it trapped or is it free?” Anna asks him. Will replies, “You have to decide that. Inside. Outside. Inside. Outside.” Anna then repeats what he says, saying “In. Out. In. Out” as the image of the thaumatrope fades.
Algar, who plays Kitty, explains that her character “is part of the story, but she can dabble between the two. As Sebastian said, it’s a challenge for the audience to get lost in the idea of this narrative. Kitty is someone who holds on to the old world and the new world, she is someone who bridges that but also questions Lib who is very much an outsider placed in this community that doesn’t understand her.
Lelio explains that the purpose of booking the film with the modern studio shooting is to illustrate the modern resonance of the story. “Talking about the opening and the role that Kitty is playing, that awareness, the confidence of the film, is also a way of saying, ‘Of course this isn’t really 1862.’ It may seem obvious to say, but let’s say it because the characters are fictional, but what they represent isn’t. . So we’re kind of caught up in the same kind of storytelling. The beginning and the end are a way of saying, ‘This is today. That is now.”
Emily Burack (she/she) is the newswriter for Town & Country, where she covers entertainment, culture, the royals and a range of other topics. Before joining T&C, she was deputy editor at Hey Alma, a Jewish culture site. Follow her @emburack on Twitter and Instagram.