Set in 1862 Ireland, “The Wonder” follows Nurse Lib Wright as she enters a village to observe a girl named Anna, who has stopped eating for the last four months and is apparently doing fine. A council full of men—Dr. McBrearty, Sir Otway, Father Thaddeus, John Flynn, and Seán Ryan—puts Lib and Sister Michael on eight-hour shifts to see how Anna is actually doing this. Lib and Michael aren’t supposed to talk to each other about their inferences so that their final review of the situation can be as uninfluenced as possible. Lib’s watch begins on an ordinary note as she passively documents everything that she sees about Anna. But her parents’ proximity to her and the frequent appointments with visitors (coming in from far and wide to see her and donate to the cause) make Lib suspicious. So, she puts a pause on Anna’s meetings with her parents and random people under the guise of getting a proper reading. And that’s exactly when things start to go downhill.
Major Spoilers Ahead
What Happens After Lib Separates Anna From Her Family?
Almost immediately after Lib separates Anna from her family, one of her teeth falls out. Lib tells her parents, Rosaleen and Malachy, that Anna needs to eat because she is getting weaker, paler, and tired. While Rosaleen says that she was fine until Lib intervened, Malachy says that he can’t break the promise of never asking Anna to eat at Lib’s request. During one of her watches, out of sheer frustration, Lib tries to insert a feeding tube down Anna’s throat and replenish her strength. But Lib backs off upon seeing Anna’s suffering and even apologizes to her for trying to artificially feed her, especially when she’s hell-bent on not doing so. Her dogged determination soon proves to be fatal, as while going for a walk with Lib and Will (Lib’s love interest and a journalist), she passes out. Upon inspection, it seems like her lungs have given out, thereby leading to her consistent coughing.
So, “The Wonder” is basically based on the “fasting girl” phenomenon that occurred during the Victorian era, where pre-adolescent girls used to “survive” over long periods of time without having any kind of nourishment. Like Anna, who claims her source of food is Manna from Heaven, these girls would claim that they were the chosen ones by God or had magical powers. Mollie Fancher apparently didn’t eat food for 14 years. Sarah Jacob claimed she hadn’t eaten food since the age of 10 and enjoyed quite a bit of publicity as well as numerous gifts and donations for this stupendous feat. Some other examples involved Lenora Eaton and Josephine Marie Bedard, both of whom were accused of getting some form of help. And it became apparent that this was nothing more than a publicity stunt to earn some money and fame while keeping the girl fed while no one was looking. It was reality TV before television was even a thing. And going by the O’Donnells’ financial status as well as the village’s decrepit state, it’s clear that they were coaxing Anna to do her thing to put food on the table and create a steady influx of visitors to the village.
Does Anna Confess Why She Is Fasting?
Throughout the film, Anna alludes to her religious inclinations, along with the fact that the O’Donnells’ entire house is filled with symbols and images synonymous with Christianity. Then we get the information that Rosaleen and Malachy’s son, Pat, had passed away. When that’s coupled with the revelation that Anna keeps a lock of her brother’s hair hidden away in the bust of St. Mary, it leads to the assumption that Anna’s fast has something to do with mourning her brother’s death. While talking about Lib’s past, where she handled sick soldiers who had done “awful things” at war, Anna briefly mentions that, in purgatory, souls are made to burn eternally. When Lib says that Pat is definitely in Heaven, Anna replies that no one can say so for sure. So, Lib adds two and two together and pushes Anna to confess. She learns that Anna was in an incestuous marriage with Pat, during which he fell sick and died. Rosaleen blames Anna for his death and makes her do this whole ritual to free Pat’s soul from Hell and send him to Heaven.
Ireland’s “Punishment of Incest Act 1908” states that incest is a punishable offense, even if it is consensual in nature. That means the practice of getting into a romantic relationship with one’s relative was fairly common up until 1908. If that makes you want to throw up, please feel free to do so. If not, my God, get yourself checked. Coming to “The Wonder,” it’s pretty clear that Pat and Anna’s relationship happened with Rosaleen and Malachy’s blessings. They keep saying that Lib is from England and, hence, she can’t understand the O’Donnells, which essentially means that Lib is too “modern” to be accepting of incest. And Rosaleen is evidently using religion to brainwash Anna into thinking that she’s doing something righteous while keeping her nourished by chewing food and spitting into her mouth during their “goodnight kiss” like a bird (hence, the bird trapped in a cage allegory). On the side, they are making money off of Anna’s suffering because, as mentioned before, it was trending during that era. In a way, that makes Rosaleen an influencer (the kind that exploits their family to get brand endorsements).
‘The Wonder’ Ending Explained: How Does Lib Emancipate Anna? What’s Up With Kitty Breaking The Fourth Wall?
It’s imperative to mention at this point that Lib had a baby who lived for three weeks and two days, and her husband abandoned her soon after that. She carries a pair of the child’s boots and performs this ritual, where she drinks some kind of sedative and plays with them. This pretty much shows that she is in constant pain due to the loss of her child, and her proximity to Anna reignites her motherly instincts. That’s when, even when she’s told to observe, she makes it her task to keep her safe and healthy. At her weakest point, she even begs Rosaleen to continue her bird-like process of feeding Anna just so that she can live. When that doesn’t work, Lib performs a second layer of brainwashing to convince Anna that she is going to die and rebirth as Nan (the nickname that Anna and Lib decided on earlier). As soon as Anna agrees, Lib runs away with her and enacts a ritual where she becomes unconscious for a few seconds as Anna and regains consciousness as Nan.
Lib then goes to the O’Donnell household to burn everything, even her own bottle of sedative and the pair of baby boots. She gets burned in the process. But it essentially demolishes her memories of her past, as well as Anna’s. Fire is usually considered to be a symbol of enlightenment, purification, destruction, and pain. In Christianity, fire has been denoted as the tool for torment and punishment for one’s sins, as well as the mark of God’s presence. Lib even makes it look like an “act of God” by saying that she “accidentally” knocked over the lamp after finding out that Anna had died and “accidentally” reduced her to ashes. So, in a way, she uses the popular interpretation of fire to hide the fact that she has whisked her away to safety with Will’s help. While the O’Donnells and the rest of the town mourn Anna’s death, we see the girl in London living with Lib and Will as their adopted child, Nan, and eating food as well. Does she have any memory of this traumatic event? Well, I don’t think so. She probably suppressed it or remembered it as a horrific nightmare.
Now, what’s up with the fourth-wall breaks and set-within-a-set shenanigans? During the opening, we see a film set in which the movie “The Wonder” is being shot. The narrator frames it as a story that we must believe in, just like the “characters” in the movie believe in their stories. At around the 25-minute mark, it’s revealed that the narrator is actually Kitty O’Donnell, and she reminds us that we are nothing without stories. While registering her name, Nan or Anna looks straight into the camera, thereby breaking the fourth wall and hinting that she knows that we are watching her story unfold. And during the concluding moments of the film, we see the camera reveal that the final dining scene is a movie set, and Kitty is standing there (in modern clothing) and uttering the phrase “In. Out. In. Out.” So, as far as my deduction skills go, “The Wonder” is essentially saying that these stories of the emancipation of girls under various forms of oppression are possible only in fictional films. In the real world, things are much more complex. However, we can learn from these stories, stand beside women who are in cages (literal or metaphorical), and facilitate their release, even if that means repurposing the very tools and methods that the system employs for abuse.
“The Wonder” is a 2022 Drama Thriller film directed by Sebastián Lelio.