‘The Miracle’ review: Florence Pugh stuns as nurse weighing science against religion

The year is 1862 in a remote Irish village when an English nurse is called by a local council to observe and investigate a phenomenon in the haunting new film The Miracle. She was told there was an 11-year-old girl who hadn’t eaten in four months and still seemed healthy.

The nurse, Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), must watch over the girl, taking turns with a nun – this is Ireland, of course – and report back what she observes. They say they’d like to know if it’s a miracle or not, although most seem to have decided they’d rather not hear if it’s the latter.

The film by Chilean director Sebastian Lelio (“Fantastic Woman”) is adapted from a novel by Emma Donoghue, the Irish author of “The Room.” Said she was inspired by Victorian fasting girls. In the late 19th century, newspapers published stories of young girls, often bedridden, who claimed to have lived without food or water for extended periods of time. Some doctors called it hysteria. Some believed it to be a holy miracle and made pilgrimages to visit the girls.

Long fasts have long been celebrated by saints and nuns since the Middle Ages, perhaps most famously by Catherine of Siena. In 1982, historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg would write in her book that it was undiagnosed anorexia nervosa, although somewhere along the way someone would give religiously motivated fasting its own term: anorexia mirabilis. Like “The Room,” “Miracle” delves into deep, uncomfortable traumas and won’t be for everyone, especially those triggered by images and descriptions of malnourishment.

Lelio, who co-wrote the adaptation with Alice Burch, uses a curious Brechtian framing device, opening the film on an empty, fluorescent-lit soundstage as a narrator, Niamh Algar, invites the viewer into the film. “Hello. This is the beginning. The beginning of a movie called The Miracle. The people you will meet, the characters, believe in their stories wholeheartedly. We are nothing without stories, and so we invite you to believe in this one,” says Algar, as cinematographer Ari Wegner’s camera pans to part of a boat cabin and focuses on Lib.

It’s not ineffectively done, but I’m also not sure it adds anything, as the film mostly engages with Lieb’s reality from there on out. After all, don’t all movies invite us to believe? Although perhaps this is something worth repeating. And that feeling is sure to reverberate through your head as science collides with religion in a very compelling gothic mystery surrounding the curious case of Anna O’Donnell (Cilla Lord Cassidy).

Pugh gives another stunning performance, utterly naturalistic and committed, as a skeptical nurse recently returned from the Crimea with Florence Nightingale, her own personal losses haunting her. She is an outsider in every possible way, a woman of science and English, coming to this small, deeply Catholic town that has just emerged from the Great Famine.

Lib is sure that Anna is not telling the truth when she says that she has existed solely on “manna from heaven” for four months. She knows she’d be dead if she did. But she also finds herself more invested in her subject than she might have expected. Anna’s story has also traveled and become a comfort not only to her parents but also to strangers from all over the world who come to witness the miracle. It also attracts a journalist from the town, played by Tom Burke, who is both a thorn and a help to Lib in her increasingly frustrating search for truth and facts, which she begins to understand are not so simple in this town.

At the beginning, Lib asks Anna’s mother what her last meal was: It was the Eucharist at her first communion.

“So just water and grain?” Lieb answers.

“No,” they told her. “This is the body and blood of Christ.”

It’s a story for Lib and a fact for believers, and they find themselves at an impasse that feels awfully resonant. But science-belief clashes aside, The Miracle is a compelling, moving film by the incomparable Pugh.

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