In a free for all month on the Collab, some of the tonal shifts can be…jarring. This week’s film is one of our more extreme examples, veering from campy ’80s slasher to moody Irish period drama. What can I say? We’re a partnership with eclectic tastes.
An English nurse takes a job in rural 19th-century Ireland, caring for a child who claims she no longer eats but instead survives miraculously on manna.
Arriving on Irish shores just a few years after the potato famine, English nurse Elizabeth Wright fully anticipates the rather chilly welcome she receives. What comes as a surprise is the nature of the well-paid assignment she has accepted; rather than provide medical care, Mrs. Wright will be one of two “watchers” overseeing a unique case. Following reports of an 11-year-old girl who claims to live on manna from heaven rather than food, Elizabeth (Lib to her friends) brings a medical perspective; the other watcher is a nun, Sister Michael.
Taking a scientific approach to things, Lib immediately suspects the girl, Anna, of inventing stories. After all, it’s medically impossible for anyone to keep in such good health without eating for months. During their time together, Lib remains skeptical but begins to seek answers elsewhere as Anna truly believes she is experiencing a miracle. Who might have something to gain from the attention: the local officials, Anna’s doctor, her own family?
While Lib begins to unravel the mystery, she encounters a significant amount of sorrow, including her own. Anna’s brother died young, and his presence is very much haunting the family (though not in the literal horror movie way typical for this blog). The trauma of recent (and upcoming) Irish history looms large, as well as the legacy of colonialism across the globe. Closer to home, how much grief is Lib herself holding onto as she was a nurse in the Crimean War, now a widow, and keeps a hidden stash of laudanum to help her sleep at night.
Though Lib initially scorns journalist William’s investigation of the story, their conversations help her to process her theories. Suspecting that Anna’s mother secretly gives food to her child, Lib bans the family from visiting. As Anna’s health deteriorates quickly, it seems Lib is onto something–but whose convictions will prevail in this battle of wills?
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
It’s no secret that I love a period drama, and this one is done very well. In addition to the beautiful landscapes and social commentary I’d expect from a quality entry in the genre, there are some careful details that elevate this film. One: most of the characters have ONE outfit–which, as much as a I love a period costume, tracks. Lib’s dress in particular shows wear and tear, and the hem is always covered in mud.
The pace is deliberately slow and reflective, uncovering some of the deep sadness of Irish history and the characters we follow. I appreciate that some of the themes addressed here aren’t typical for a period drama, particularly the contemporary reflection on colonialism and the trauma behind Anna’s self-imposed starvation. No spoilers for this, but it’s quite tragic.
Not to say this is a miserable film devoid of joy; it’s actually quite hopeful in places. Florence Pugh, as always, is best when scheming, but she delivers a compelling performance throughout.
As far as criticism goes, I do find the opening and closing scenes reminding us this is a film rather pretentious and unnecessary. There are also SO MANY scenes of Lib eating in contrast to Anna’s fasting that it occasionally borders on parody. And, if I’m being honest, William comes across as more prop than human. However, these are fairly minor complaints in a film that tells its story well.