Florence Pugh’s new movie The Wonder about a Victorian fasting girl has an unusual introduction and ending. We examine what these bookends mean.

What are we make of the peculiar story-telling trickery of The Wonder?

More specifically, what are we supposed to understand by the unusual framing device that begins and ends the movie?

The Netflix film, starring Florence Pugh, tells the tale of a “fasting girl”, an 11-year-old who stops eating and appears to remain healthy for months. She lives on the power of her faith, she claims.

Florence Pugh is Mrs Lib Wright, a nurse brought to Ireland from London by the town’s authorities to observe the girl and check for fraud.

The film is set in 1862, just a few years after the devastating Irish famine. Many of the townsfolk cling to the consoling thought of a miracle at a time of grief and despair.

Dr McBrearty (Toby Jones) wants to make his name, writing in medical journals about the case and suggesting numerous theories for Anna’s wellbeing, including photosynthesis.

Mrs Wright – Lib – has her own issues. Although she tries to remain clear-sighted, she and the girl, Anna, form a bond of sorts centred on a sense of devastating loss. Lib has lost a child, Anna her brother.

About that framing device

But what about that framing device? What does it mean?

The movie opens on a film set, with scenery constructed on scaffolding. The camera roams around numerous settings on a film lot, showing us in advance how the film-makers plan to trick us with their illusion.

The movie closes the same way, delivering us back to the studio lot, liked we’ve just finished the tour at Universal.

It is though the film-makers (director Sebastian Lelio and writer Emma Donoghue) are laying down a challenge. As if we are being dared to ignore the pull of our imagination and stay rooted in the here and now.

And when we return, at the movie’s close, the final bookend seems to say, we got you, didn’t we? We took you to Ireland, we involved you in the lives of entirely fictional characters and you were moved, weren’t you, despite knowing it was fiction.

There is a reason for this, tied to the theme of the film. Because the film is about belief and fabrication.

We are nothing without story

The actor Niamh Algar is both modern narrator and participant in The Wonder (appearing as family servant Kitty).

Breaking the fourth wall and addressing us directly, she says, “This is the beginning of a film called The Wonder. The people you meet, the characters, believe in their story with complete devotion.”

“We are nothing without story,” she reminds us as we drop into the lush Irish setting and forget about all that plywood and scaffold.

Algar explained to the Radio Times, “It’s that idea of allowing the audience to be drawn into the story. We’re giving them a wink and going, ‘We’re telling the story, stories are used in order to make sense of this world and inviting you in in the hope that you’re going to believe in the characters and the story.’”

Lib Wright, played with stern melancholy by Florence Pugh, brings to her vigil a scientific purpose forged in the bloody battlefields of the Crimea. She is almost impatient with the girl and even more so with those around her who will not encourage Anna to eat. And yet Lib is troubled herself, self-medicating herself into oblivion as she struggles with overwhelming grief.

More to life than food

And perhaps for this reason she too has a yearning to believe something which overrides her professional scepticism. She may be bound to common sense but there is something about the girl’s faith that suggests there is more to life than mere existence.

The girl, Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy), tells a story of faith. And while Lib cannot believe it, she wishes to believe something.


And there is a moment, a splendid moment, which turns the story. I cannot tell you because it would spoil the twist, but it requires Lib Wright to abandon her pure medical discipline and treat the girl’s multi-layered maladies in a wholly unconventional but empathetic way.

In that moment, the nurse succumbs to the power of story and finds her own resolution.

Perhaps that is The Wonder.

Trapped in a cage

One intriguing aspect of the film is Anna’s fascination with a thaumatrope, an optical toy that spins, with a bird on one side of a disk and an empty cage on the other. Spin the card with sufficient speed and the images merge, and the bird appears to be trapped in the cage.

“In, out, in out,” says Algar, hypnotically of this optical trick.

The bird-in-cage illusion has a close parallel to the hard-wired trickery of story. An optical illusion works even when you know its secret. Even when you understand completely how you are being tricked, you still you cannot override the deceit.

The mind takes the sensory feed as truth, regardless.

Scene from The Wonder

It is the same with story. Despite being shown the sets, the studio, the actors at work, we still cannot resist the need to treat the characters as anything other than real.

We surrender to the power of story as we have been conditioned to do for millennia.

We cannot do otherwise and, most likely, we wouldn’t choose to, if we could.

Factfile: What are fasting girls?

Fasting girls are a phenomenon that came to attention in the Victorian era. They were predominately young girls who claimed to survive long periods without food.

Often, their claims were linked to religious belief. They often became the subject of fascination and veneration.

Scientific investigation never found a true cause for the claim, and they were generally regarded by medical experts as frauds.

Modern interpretations have centred on anorexia nervosa. However, the religious connotations were powerful, reinforced by the claims that saints, such as Catherine of Siena, to have achieved the same feat. This encouraged faith in, rather than true examination of, the fasting girls.

Why are women especially prone?

Others pointed to other “mass hysteria” contagions that have been noted throughout history up to modern times. They have included accusations of witchcraft, “dancing plagues” and body seizures.

Experts are divided as to why these outbreaks affect females, especially young girls, to an overwhelming degree.

Theories include how women are socialised, how they internalise symptoms in a repressive male dominated societies and how women manifest the symptoms of extreme stress.