If you just caught The Wonder on, you might have questions about that unconventional ending. The psychological drama from Chilean director Sebastián Lelio asks you to believe in the power of storytelling and how it can alter reality. Case in point: The young girl visited by Florence Pugh's Nurse Lib Wright claims to be able to survive without food, but someone might be spinning a yarn.
Let's run through the themes of The Wonder, sort the truth from the storytelling and find out why the movie opens and ends in such an odd way.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
What's with that weird opening?
You might have been double-checking which movie you'd put on after seeing this period drama's strange beginning. To the sounds of haunting choral voices, we see the semi-built structure of an old-fashioned two-storey house. The camera pans through what appears to be a lot in a film studio, filled with equipment and other pieces of set. Then actor Niamh Algar says in voiceover: "Hello. This is the beginning. The beginning of a film called The Wonder. The people you're about to meet, the characters, believe in their stories with complete devotion. We are nothing without stories, and so we invite you to believe in this one."
The camera then stops on the interior of a ship sailing to Ireland in 1862, where the Great Famine "still casts a long shadow and the Irish hold England responsible for that devastation." It zooms in on Florence Pugh, who plays English nurse Lib Wright, the main character of the tale.
Yep, it's all a tad pretentious. But it effectively sets up the main theme of the film: the power of belief. The whole reason Nurse Wright is summoned by a self-appointed committee to a village in Ireland is that many people want to believe a young girl called Anna O'Donnell has miraculously lived without food for four months. Nurse Wright is enlisted to watch the girl for two weeks to determine how she's still alive.
This framing also sets us up to be aware of the transportive power of storytelling -- you're quickly immersed in the creaking, drippy, smokey world of the ship and Nurse Wright's journey, a journey the narrator has invited us to believe in.
What does Nurse Wright drink every night?
Nurse Wright's addiction to what looks to be laudanum, a tincture of opium, is another nod to that question of what's real and what isn't. Nurse Wright has suffered her fair share of tragedy -- her baby daughter died and her husband left her soon after -- and the night cap might be her way of coping. Pricking her finger with blood could be a way of checking she's still alive -- or it could be a form of self-harm. Amid the stresses of her current job, the ritual seems to further loosen Nurse Wright's grip on reality.
Is it true that Anna doesn't need to eat?
Not long into Nurse Wright's stay with the O'Donnell family, we see young Anna's mother lean in close to her daughter's face during a nightly prayer. It isn't clear if we're witnessing a loving kiss on the forehead or something more disturbing. Nurse Wright soon escalates her watch over the miracle patient by insisting the O'Donnells no longer come into Anna's room. From this point onward, Anna's condition deteriorates rapidly.
About two-thirds through the film, after summoning the committee, Nurse Wright reveals her assessment of the situation: "Anna's mother, Mrs. O'Donnell, has been passing her food from her own mouth. She cups her face and kisses her good morning and good night, and she feeds her daughter with each kiss, like a bird." When her mother is prevented from kissing her, Anna quickly becomes ill, no longer receiving any sustenance at all.
Why does Anna refuse to eat?
Even after Nurse Wright reveals her findings to the committee, Anna's mother refuses to admit the truth. She and her husband are willing to let the experiment continue, even if Anna dies, refusing to give up their religious beliefs. In any case, Anna has "chosen" the path to death, believing that if she dies, "one soul will be released... from Hell." Anna thinks this soul will be her brother, who groomed and raped her at 9 for years. He was "punished" for the "Unholy" act with a deadly illness, but their mother says he'll be released to Heaven with Anna's sacrifice. Anna believes this is her duty because she loved her brother back.
What's with the narrator at the end?
In the end, Nurse Wright uses the power of storytelling and belief to save Anna. After discovering the horrifying narrative Anna's mother has fed her, Nurse Wright convinces Anna she could face a different fate: That she can die and make her sacrifice, but also be reborn as a 9-year-old again who didn't suffer terrible acts. Mixing the opioid liquid with milk, Nurse Wright induces Anna into a trance-like state in which she experiences rebirth, assuming the new identity of "Nan."
Nurse Wright fakes a report of Anna dying so the committee don't press charges against her, and she burns down the O'Donnell's house so evidence of a body appears to be destroyed. Escaping Ireland, Nurse Wright, William and Nan safely make it to Sydney, posing as the Cheshire family. There, we see them share a fancy meal, with Nan shown to be eating again.
To the sound of more hopeful, ethereal tones, the camera pans and we return to the film studio. There, we see Algar dressed in all black, no longer playing Anna's older sister Kitty, but the mysterious narrator. She whispers: "In. Out. In. Out." Again, pretentious, but this goes back to the idea of believing in stories and the power of faith.
Is The Wonder based on a true story?
Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue adapted The Wonder from her own 2016 novel (Donoghue did the same with her 2010 novel Room, the 2015 adaptation seeing Brie Larson win the best actress Oscar). The story of The Wonder isn't based on real-life events but was inspired by the phenomenon of "the fasting girl," dating back to the 1500s, whereby girls would starve themselves as a form of penance.
In an interview with Pan Macmillan, Donoghue explains:
"I was instantly intrigued by these cases, which seemed to echo medieval saints starving as an act of penance, and also modern anorexics, but weren't exactly the same as either. In researching the novel I looked at almost fifty of them, which ranged from Ireland and Britain, to Western Europe, to the USA and Canada, from the 1500s right through to the 1900s. That's an average of only about one a decade; these self-starving celebrities were very rare. In some cases they may have heard of each other, but the cases didn't cluster; they happened at long, random intervals, anywhere from urban Brooklyn to rural Wales."