The Wonder, coming to Netflix on November 16th, tells the story of an English nurse in 1862 named Lib (Florence Pugh) who is called to look over a special case in the Irish Midlands. An 11-year-old girl named Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy) has stopped eating months ago and insists she exists on manna from heaven to survive. Against the feelings of the small, devout community in which Anna resides, Lib must investigate how Anna has managed to stay alive and watch her for a period of time. The experience forces Lib to deal with the hauntings of her past and move forward as an outsider in ways she never imagined.
The film is based on a novel by Emma Donoghue and is directed by Sebastián Lelio (Gloria, A Fantastic Woman). The screenplay was co-written by Donoghue, Lelio and Alice Birch.
Forbes spoke with Lelio about how much of the story is based on the historical concept of “fasting girls.” We also discussed how he went about casting such challenging roles and what the process of filming The Wonder was like during the pandemic.
Risa Sarachan: Had you read the novel before taking on this project?
Sebastián Lelio: Producer Ed Guiney suggested that I read the novel, and I really loved it. At an emotional level, I really connected with Lib, Florence Pugh’s character. I thought it was an amazing character arc to portray and a great role for a great actress. From reason to having to transcend reason and ending up doing the wildest things to rescue that girl, I thought that was incredible. I also thought the relationship between Lib and Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy) was really unique. It is rare to see in a film that the central most important relationship is this kind of sorority complicity between two women of different generations and not a romance or something else similar. I found that unique and moving. Conceptually, I was captivated by the novel as it was an exploration of the collision between belief systems, in this case science and religion.
Sarachan: What about The Wonder spoke to you as a director?
Lelio: Apart from the beautiful journey of these two women finding and rescuing each other and the almost abstract element that the visitation of this stranger into this community had, I think what really interested me is the aspect of trying to analyze the power of fiction in our lives. Through this story, we get to see how the characters in The Wonder operate within different narratives. Narratives that align with political power, in this case, the religious narrative and how that narrative operates to put order to this world which is then conflicted with the scientific narrative that Lib brings into the mix. Additionally, exploring how changing the narrative can have a political impact was also a great reason to make this film.
Sarachan: The beautiful relationship between Florence Pugh and Kíla Lord Cassidy’s characters in this film binds the story together. How did you go about casting the film?
Lelio: Emma Donoghue, Alice Birch and I wrote the script without thinking of a particular actress, but then when the script was done, the idea of Florence quickly appeared. It was then very fluid, we shared the script with her, and we were very lucky that she accepted the role. Florence is a brilliant, strong actress whose moral authority and integrity really communicate well with the character since the character of the nurse needed that strength and integrity.
Then we needed to find someone to play the character of Anna. We saw dozens of audition tapes with a casting process that was done all over Ireland. We finally received Kíla’s tape, and I was speechless. I thought her commitment and deep understanding of the character were impressive and beautiful and I just couldn’t believe she was only eleven-years-old. Then I found out she was the daughter of Elaine Cassidy and Stephen Lord. I think it was the case of a natural actress who has also inherited great knowledge from her parents. We were also very blessed to have Elaine playing Kila’s mother in the film.
Sarachan: How do you think this story connects with things happening in the world in the present day?
Lelio: Today, in the post-factual era that we are living in, due to social media, everyone has a voice and can adhere to or reject all sorts of beliefs. The idea of who controls the narrative has finally become global. We know from experience you can manipulate the masses by creating seductive narratives. So, the questions of, who do you believe in? What do you believe in? Are your beliefs inherited by default, or have you made the process of choosing your beliefs? Those questions are absolutely relevant, urgent and extremely political today. The narrative war is happening right in front of our eyes today and I believe that’s what The Wonder is about.
Sarachan: I know the story is fiction, but there were “fasting girls” who were seen as medical miracles during this era. How much did you research this, or did this inform the work you did with Kíla?
Lelio: We were very lucky to co-write the script with the writer of the novel, Emma Donoghue. We inherited this fully created world and all the research that she had done for the novel. We were educated by Emma a lot, especially regarding the fasting girls and how that inspired her to write the book. Back then, these fasting girls were always considered a mystical phenomenon, but now they can be considered a precedent for eating disorders. I found it interesting and said a lot that they were always girls and how the communities surrounding them wanted them to be miraculous yet dying. There is a perverse side to the whole phenomenon that is really interesting to analyze and observe.
Sarachan: What was the experience of filming this during Covid?
Lelio: I feel so lucky and privileged to be able to go back and make another film during the pandemic. We were very lucky we were able to create a little bubble of our film community. It was difficult with masks and restrictions, but filming is always difficult so it was just another layer. I think the joy of making a film was bigger than the difficulties that Covid brought.
Sarachan: What do you hope people take away from this film?
Lelio: I hope that they can dive into the film and have a strong cinematic experience. I also hope that at the end, they come out of the film with a couple of good questions about the role of beliefs and storytelling in our individual lives and in our communities. Hopefully viewers will be more aware of the fact that everything is a narrative war. It is important that everyone is aware of what they believe and support as a citizen.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Wonder is now streaming on Netflix.