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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Vicky Jessop

Behind the scenes of Florence Pugh’s new film The Wonder: “It’s almost like going to another planet”

Florence Pugh as Lib Wright in The Wonder


Before making The Wonder, director Sebastián Lelio had never made a period drama before. Nor was he familiar with the Irish history that permeates every scene of the film.

But he did have an in: the main character, Lib. “Lib was a great vehicle for me to access this unknown, very closed off world, where it’s their own particular set of rules, and they worship a particular God. It’s almost like going to another planet,” he says.

“We did a lot of research. But also what really interests me is humans. I grew up in a dictatorship in the south of Chile in a Catholic country. I kind of understood what was going on there… yeah, the dynamics I knew.”

Comparing Victorian Ireland with a Chilean dictatorship might sound like a bit of a stretch, but The Wonder makes any links between the two seem obvious.

Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, the film tells the story of Lib (played by Florence Pugh), an English nurse who comes to “watch” Anna, a peasant girl who claims not to have eaten in four months due to the power of her Christian faith – and to ascertain whether she is telling the truth or not.

Drawing on the phenomenon of “fasting girls”, the film – and the book which preceded it – are a study in religious extremism, the power of stories and the role of the patriarchy.

However, as the book’s author (and the film’s scriptwriter) Emma Donoghue tells it, the original idea for the story started in Wales, with the real-life story of fasting girl Sarah Jacobs, who ultimately died after being under observation in similar circumstances to those in The Wonder. A few decades later, the term anorexia nervosa was coined.

Wonder-ful: Lelio with star Florence Pugh (AIDAN MONAGHAN/NETFLIX)

“I wanted to set it just before there was a clear explanation [about the cause of the fasting girls], because it’s just so much more interesting to write stories where there isn’t a clear explanation,” says Donoghue, whose book Room was also made into an acclaimed film.

“And there are all these different theories and ways of interpreting something or kind of flying around.”

Perhaps understandably, the theme of food runs throughout The Wonder: the memory of the Irish Potato Famine also hovers like a spectre over the entire film, though it is set a decade or so after it happened.

“The Irish famine is something that’s obviously taught in Irish schools, but it hasn’t really been depicted that extensively within filmmaking,” the Irish actress Niamh Algar, who plays servant Kitty, says.

“Where people were at that time… why it is they chose to lean so much into religion, because they’ve experienced so much grief that they’re holding out for some hope.”

In contrast to the Irish characters, shots of FlorencePugh’s character eating stews are dotted throughout the film. Algar says the trend continued off-set, with Pugh bringing food in for the cast and crew on shoot days.

“We ended up with a lot of scenes of her eating,” Donoghue says. “Luckily, Florence Pugh eats really intelligently… you see her [character] sort of choosing life with every step and every mouthful.”

Over the course of the film, Pugh’s character – a nurse who served under Florence Nightingale – repeatedly clashes with the village’s elders, who believe that Anna’s fasting is a sign of her religious faith rather than a sign of potential illness.

For Donoghue, the battle between science and religion has also taken on new power in the comparatively few years since the book was published in 2016, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I was super-aware that science was something that needed to be argued for and fought for these days. The forces of anti-science are alive and well, just as much as in that 19th century village, so this is not just some period piece,” she says.

“I think we’ve all become very aware of the kind of political aspects of health and how the idea of one sick child and how you deal with her can be kind of microcosm of all the big debates that are going on in anyone’s society.”

The history of famine: Niamh Algar as Kitty (AIDAN MONAGHAN/NETFLIX)

The film is bookended by two unexpectedly meta elements, where Algar takes to the screen in modern clothing to tell us that what the audience is watching is not real: it is, in fact, a story.

There are a couple of reasons for this: one of them, as Lelio says, is about historical accuracy. “I don’t belong to a tradition of filmmaking that has a lot of experience making period [films],” Lelio says. “So in a certain way, I came fresh: fresh, innocent, irresponsible. And I really think that, of course, it’s impossible to travel back in time.

“The framing and the fact that it starts today… is a way of saying this [kind of story] has always happened. It happened in the 1860s. And will continue to happen unless we change the power dynamics. So I was I was slightly more interested in that than in stressing too much about historical accuracy.”

However, Lelio is adamant that this framing device also adds an important element to the overall viewing experience, inviting the audience to suspend their disbelief in the same way the village elders do when confronted with Anna’s story of abstinence.

“It has always been said that there is a religious factor in the cinematic experience, in the sense that when you’re confronted with good cinema, your mechanisms of suspension of disbelief are activated.” He says the film is not against religion but is about the power of an open mind and being able to adapt to new stories.

For Lelio, stories lie at the heart of The Wonder: both their potential, and their danger. “Today, because of the internet, all these fixated ideas multiply and find acolytes so quickly: that’s the power of storytelling. It’s not just entertainment, it’s politics,” he says.

“It’s powerful, you know, so I think we need to create better stories, more sophisticated stories that can push us forward and not backwards.”

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