The Marvel – BFI London Film Festival 2022
Screenwriters: Sebastián Lelio, Alice Birch and Emma Donoghue
Director: Sebastien Lelio
Miracle or fraud? Emma Donoghue adapts her novel wonderment for the screen, working with Sebastián Lelio and Alice Birch to reflect on the boundary between science and faith in the aftermath of the Irish famine. Screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022, wonderment create a Crucible-like the tension in a small community and the grasp of a healthy skepticism that director Lelio uses to explore the willingness to sacrifice a child in the name of divine provenance and some very earthly family sins.
Miracle child Anna has not eaten for four months and visitors come from all over Ireland to be in her presence. But a local committee made up of the doctor, the priest and devout townspeople who need to find out the truth about Anna’s survival hires Nurse Wright from England to form a watch on the child for two weeks. But as Anna’s condition deteriorates, will anyone believe what Mrs. Wright discovers?
Lelio, Birch and Donoghue’s film is concerned with the artifice and immersive power of stories, fictions that can control other types of narratives and behaviors. Thus, Lelio’s film opens with a sound stage, tracking the Brechtian construction of false rooms and sets in which we are about to be immersed. It is a technique that bookends wonderment but prepares the viewer to think carefully about the events we see and, in keeping with that story, how the surface of things belies the inherent falsity beneath. So while the screenwriters set up their stall early – which Anna and her family are pretending – the claustrophobia created by Lelio makes Elizabeth Wright’s truth-seeking mission compelling.
This balance between deep Catholicism with its faith in saints and miracles and the pure medical examination imposed by the nurse works incredibly effectively, asking how quickly the ideals of the Enlightenment spread and the desire to believe what you know and the evidence with your own eyes. The impending darkness inside the family home and the dark, cloudy beauty of the rural landscapes – painterly and rich with Ari Wegner’s cinematography – only add to the possibility of something greater than science. . The treacherous ways not only limit communication with the outside world, but almost insist that God is the answer.
The conflict between fact and fiction that runs through wonderment is more complex than old versus young, or metropolitan versus pastoral dwellers, it’s not even as simple as Catholic versus Protestant, and Donoghue’s characters convey a mix of beliefs and possibilities depending on what they’re up against, centered around the gaslighting of a child and an entire community for which the film offers only partial condemnation – judging as much as it provides enough context to understand.
As Elizabeth Wright, Pugh is more observable than ever, a character who hides her own trauma for which she self-medicates, with the rigorous application of scientific scrutiny and facts. Given plenty of emotional depth via a jagged relationship with an underwritten reporter played by Tom Burke, Pugh anchors a female-focused film about controlling female bodies, while Kila Lord Cassidy is excellent as the moving Anna who experiences a bodily and spiritual decline.
With the good support of a dismissive panel of well-educated men, including Toby Jones as the local doctor, Ciaran Hinds as the priest, and Brían F. O’Byrne as the particularly zealous resident, wonderment evokes an immersive and confining storyline that asks important questions about the lengths people will go for their faith and the true cost to body and soul.
The Wonder is screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.