I wonder who thought this poster was a good idea
dir: Sebastián Lelio
Sometimes, either through listening to a news story, or watching a movie, all you can bring yourself to do is shake your head and go “that fucking country…”
Sometimes you say it about your own country, usually people outside of America just say it about America after another mass shooting, and sometimes you say it about a country you otherwise love but can’t believe how dumb they used to be because of religion.
Ireland. 1860s. Just after the Potato Famine. Grim times.
Grim times compounded by the abject stupidity of a populace in thrall to the Catholic Church.
An English nurse (Florence Pugh) is hired to watch a girl in alternating 8 hour shifts with a nun. She’s not meant to help the girl, or heal her. Just watch her.
The girl they say has not eaten human food in months, and is being kept alive through the grace of God, or Jesus, or magic. One doctor (Toby Jones) even wonders if the girl is drawing sustenance from sunlight, like a houseplant. If the doctors of this village are this fucking dumb…
No nonsense nursey Lib huffs and puffs around the village getting progressively more frustrated with these hicks and their hickish ways. But there’s nothing she can do. The girl is trapped in a double-bind: if she’s revealed as a fraud her family get kicked out of their house; if she’s seen eating food they’re homeless. If she doesn’t starve they’re probably kicked out as well. So whatever she’s doing, she has to keep doing it, or not doing it, until she dies.
This makes for very frustrating viewing. In truth the frustration of the main character in the face of this abject rural superstitious stupidity is matched by our frustration watching two people trapped by the times and circumstance.
It would help if perhaps Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy) were more of a sympathetic figure. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the thought and representation of any child suffering is affecting and disturbing, and you’re placed in the position of not wanting that suffering to continue, to end as soon as possible, however that might happen. But, at first, all we can think of is that this dumb girl is doing something dumb for dumb family / religious reasons.
The actual revelation, too late in the course of the film, as to why she’s doing this, regardless of the religious bullshit, is absolutely gutting, no question. And from there I just wanted everyone in the whole fucking village to die, especially her family, in flames.
For much of my viewing time I questioned the point of the movie – why does this grim tale exist? I will watch Florence Pugh in any role she ever does, because I’ve never seen her be less than impressive in any role thus far. But for much of the first, let’s say, 45 minutes, this felt like a waste of her time and mine.
There are actors that can do that “expressive inexpressiveness” or vice versa extremely well. 99% of Kate Winslet’s work in recent film Ammonite, which I really, really enjoyed, was exactly this lack of expressiveness that conveyed dark oceans of emotion buried beneath layers of a numb exterior.
Pugh tries to do something similar here, until she can start expressing reasonable emotions like anger, disbelief, disgust etc, and it doesn’t really work. She spends many scenes grimly eating food in a manner that makes it look painful, and I get the connection, because she can and does eat, and Anna cannot, for various reasons. But there’s something out of kilter, with who she is versus what she’s meant to be doing.
For much of the flick’s length, because I didn’t know much about it, I actually thought that maybe it was based on a true story, or that it was a story from the era itself. Lib, the deeply traumatised nurse who served in the Crimean War, has also lost a baby, whose booties she clutches as she takes her nightly laudanum. This element doesn’t rise to the status of a character trait, because it never impacts on her stupid job, or her relationships or anything, it just exists in the background, giving her something to do when she’s not watching Anna like a hawk.
Lib strikes up some kind of relationship with a ‘dashing’(?) journalist (Tom Burke) who works for the Daily Telegraph, and here’s it clicked and I thought “there’s no way this story is from 1860, this is a modern story”. The very moments I’m thinking of, which further clicked when I saw that the story had been written by Emma Donoghue in the end credits, is when Lib and the journo have sex.
From then on the entire story has what I would call a modern resolution. I’m not going to spoil the way that everything is resolved, suffice to say that I was initially expecting a certain kind of ending, and it ended up being an entirely different kind of ending.
It’s not “bad” for that, whatever work “bad” is doing in this sentence. It does, I guess, make sense kinda sorta for these characters (maybe). It does feel, however satisfying it might be, somewhat implausible given the era, the place, everything that happened before it. I don’t think I will ever watch the flick again, but if I did, I would wonder if it all hung together better on that second viewing.
I think as well, despite the fact that I can totally buy the town fathers / patriarchal bullshit, of this self-appointed committee that is trying to manage the lives of these people, it doesn’t really seem like they’d have the power to pull something like this off. Also, that they would hire a nurse and somehow insist that she not follow the Hippocratic Oath seems… strange? Lib seems overqualified as a nurse, and yes, of course a jerk of the doctor’s magnitude would routinely dismiss her diagnoses rather than just describing symptoms. But I never understood, considering the outcome they seemed to want, why they needed the nurse anyway.
They use a nun as well, because of course the Church has to have its filthy tentacles in every part of everyone’s life in Ireland, but it surely would have made more sense to have a bunch of them or hire some governess or, I dunno, maid to just sit there and observe. Only once does Lib overstep her job description and try to force Anna to eat, and it’s a horrible scene, with its connotations of the violation of bodily integrity (which only gets reinforced later), but you wonder how any nurse would have lasted that long.
The family is something of an enigma. Anna has a sister (Niamh Algar) who doubles both as a semi-literate narrator and an unreliable narrator, seeing as she’s not just relating events that she’s observed, she’s addressing us as the audience, with the contrived artifice that begins and ends the film. When it starts, and when it ends, the camera pans from the modern movie studio sound stage, into the crafted setting or out of it, reminding us that it’s all constructed, no matter how “real” it all appears.
Niamh Algar, though I wouldn’t pretend I have any idea how to pronounce her name, deserves to be a much bigger star than she already is. She was great in a bonkers horror flick I saw a couple of years ago called Censor, and though she has some odd moments here, where she seems far more aware of events and time and space than any Irish person from the 1860s could be, I secretly suspect she was trying to scene-steal the film from the other actors.
The mum and dad are also slightly bonkers, as one would expect. They seem like simpletons, at first, but there is a darker revelation later on, reeking of religious callousness, one almost tailor-made to justify the actions taken by certain people towards the end.
It didn’t ring true, either. While I generally thought the scenes between the nurse and the journo worked okay earlier on, there’s one scene towards the end which doesn’t seem at all like a conversation that was had by two people in the 19th century, not by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. It seemed like an improvised scene by two people wearing period costumes very much in the 2020s.
What does work in the flick – the cinematography is amazing, some of the shots inside the sets are meant to recall certain types of oil paintings: Vermeers, Rembrandts, what have you from the 17th Century. And those Midlands Irish moors always look pretty great, in any light, being so unremittingly gloomy.
And I liked the skeptical tone Lib has from beginning to end. There was no room in this flick for some bullshit trying to have it both ways, as in, sure they’re probably lying about why she’s not eating BuT MAyBe GoD iS sTilL mAkiNg iT a MiraClE? Um, no thanks.
It’s not without its virtues, but it has a lot of flaws, flaws which impact on how it effects an audience. The performances are usually fairly solid and it’s always good spending time with Florence Pugh. The fourth wall stuff didn’t really help that much, but maybe I’m misreading it.
Maybe we’re as trapped as the characters are, in poverty and prejudice, in a construction of our own creation?
6 times The Wonder needed a few more explosions, and less scenes of child starvation out of 10
“It was a terrible mistake to bring a nurse, an English nurse, here.” – in this we are totally in agreement - The Wonder