The Beautiful, Deadly Hunger of “The Wonder”

In a 2004 essay, the late writer Hilary Mantel explored the story of Gemma Galgani, a 19th-century Italian mystic who refused to eat and had sores on her hands and feet that she claimed stigmatized — one doctor explained they were self-inflicted with a sewing needle — and believed that prolonged periods of intense physical suffering could atone for all sins ever committed by priests. There’s something unnervingly timeless, Mantel writes, about young women who “starve and clean themselves and . Galgani was canonized as a saint in 1940. While she adored her, few people noticed that she was afraid of doctors, hated being examined, and once wrote of a servant who “led me into a closed room and undressed me.” It might be easier to believe in miracles than expect a girl’s pain to be hurt by someone quite conventional.

The question of what people believe in and what they don’t believe in is the main preoccupation The wonder, a haunting new Netflix adaptation of a 2016 novel by Emma Donoghue. Set in Ireland in 1862, shortly after the Great Famine killed about 1 million people, the film begins with English nurse Lib (played by Florence Pugh ) travels to a rural part of the country for an unusual assignment. Lib was hired to babysit an 11-year-old girl who some locals believe is a living miracle: she has been living healthy and apparently without food for several months. “She’s a gem,” says one visitor in awe, offering money to the girl’s parents. “A wonder.”

Lib is a northerner, the kind of strict pragmatist who is determined to dispel this mystical nonsense. But she is almost immediately disarmed by the girl Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), who stares at Lib during her initial examination with a composure that is part sullen, part blissful. “I don’t need anything to eat,” Anna tells her. “I live on manna. From heaven.” The village elders seek to co-opt Anna for their own ends: the doctor (Toby Jones) sees her as a budding scientific discovery, a girl who can live like a plant of air, water, and sunshine; a landlord (Brían F . O’Byrne) introduces her as “our first saint since the Middle Ages.” Will Byrne (Tom Burke), a journalist dispatched to investigate the situation, blames Anna and her family for fraudsters who are gullible Catholics deceive for profit In one scene, director Sebastián Leilo projects Anna’s reclining silhouette against the dark hills of the Irish countryside, making her physical body the backdrop to everyone else’s imaginative theories.

The sky is heavy with rain and wretched fallacy; Rarely does a film feel so cold, so wet. Hunger is the narrative canvas and backdrop – not just Anna’s, but everyone’s. When Lib eats before and after her watch, she does so with grim efficiency; she stacks food on her fork with something like resentment while the innkeeper’s four daughters stare at her in silence. Will is said to have lost his entire family to the famine; They would rather nail down the door of their house than suffer the outrage of dropping dead in the street. Lib finds Anna’s long fast difficult to understand: she seems healthy enough at first, but soon begins to deteriorate under Lib’s close supervision. “She’s dying,” Lib says angrily to Anna’s mother. “She is chosen‘ replies Anna’s mother (Elaine Cassidy), who firmly believes that while life is brutal and short, heaven and hell are eternal. All but Lib and Will seem oddly deaf to the slow death of a child. They are more inclined to flatter their discipline and admire the sacred spectacle of their self-destruction.


This spectacle, as Mantel’s essay points out, is nothing new. Donoghue writes that she based her book on “nearly fifty cases of so-called fasting girls” — young women around the world who became famous for allegedly surviving without food. But Anna seems most like Sarah Jacob, a mid-19th-century Welsh girl who claimed to have lived without food since she was 10, but died when her fast was placed under close medical supervision. anorexia mirabilisthe condition of refusing to eat for spiritual reasons is as ubiquitous in human history as plague and lice.

Girls have always tried to shrink for reasons they couldn’t always explain. But the modern context fills in the gaps. Starving yourself into a state of secondary amenorrhea (where a person stops menstruating) is a way to avoid fertility, unwanted marriage, or male desire. (Legend has it that the Italian nun Columba of Rieti was once stripped naked by a group of men, who retreated when they saw the scars of their self-inflicted injuries.) And not eating — as any parent of a toddler knows — is an act of Despite that, which is an attitude rarely allowed to girls. The wonderThankfully, she refuses to consider Anna’s physical downsizing as the film progresses (the book is clearer on that front), but Cassidy’s composed performance conveys that Anna is playing with power. She’s stubborn, she’s determined, she’s dying.

When The wonder when the novel was reviewed, several critics complained about the late-in-book revelation, which justifies Anna’s actions as if it were too monotonous for an otherwise exceptionally elaborate story. I won’t entirely spoil what’s happening, but it’s telling that a common crime against girls could be dismissed as, in Stephen King’s words, “a little too gothic and a little too comfortable”. I suppose it’s natural to yearn for a more unusual story—to want to believe in sacred magic and mysteries rather than mortal suffering and humiliation. But the blessing of The wonder So it acknowledges the things we most want to believe in, and yet in the end proposes that human actions and believing in others can be the most wonderful things of all.

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