Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder marks new chapter for Netflix in Ireland

Adaptation of Irish writer's novel is first film to be green-lit out of new London office

Florence Pugh on the set of Netflix film The Wonder in Ireland. Photograph: Netflix.

Florence Pugh on the set of Netflix film The Wonder in Ireland. Photograph: Netflix.

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A seven-week shoot for Netflix’s The Wonder is now under way on location in Wicklow and Dublin amid hopes the post-Famine psychological thriller – an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel – heralds the start of a deeper relationship between the Irish screen industry and the streaming giant.

Producer Ed Guiney of Element Pictures, which has teamed up with Tessa Ross’s UK-based House Productions, said Netflix’s director of UK features Fiona Lamptey had responded “decisively and passionately, with an incredibly attractive offer” when they sought backing for the film in the spring, allowing the project to move forward.

“As a period film, it requires a certain budget,” said Mr Guiney, who added that Netflix’s involvement meant the film could avoid the Covid-triggered insurance difficulties still afflicting smaller productions. “We couldn’t have insured The Wonder as an independent project in Ireland. ”

The streamer’s financing also saw The Wonder overcome “a definite labour crunch” during a “ridiculously busy” catch-up phase for the industry after last year’s pandemic stoppages.

“We have managed to attract an amazing crew, but it wasn’t easy. The fact we could say it’s for Netflix, it’s solid and it’s going to happen, helped.”

Starring Oscar nominee Florence Pugh, who was attached to the lead role of English nurse Lib at an early stage, the film was developed with the support of Screen Ireland and Access Entertainment and will be released in 2022.

One of four Netflix features commissioned out of its London office to go into production this year, The Wonder was the first to be green-lit by Ms Lamptey following her appointment last autumn.

Set in the Irish midlands of 1862 and inspired by the “fasting girls” phenomenon, the film is “a sign of Netflix’s commitment” to telling Irish stories, she said.

Although Netflix’s forthcoming releases include animated feature My Father’s Dragon from Co Kilkenny’s Cartoon Saloon, to date its other major projects to film in the Republic – fantasy series Fate: The Winx Saga and historical action drama Vikings: Valhalla – have not been Ireland-set stories. That balance is expected to shift.

Ms Lamptey said she was now meeting British and Irish producers with “ambitious, distinctive” ideas of scale in a bid to create more opportunities outside the US. “My doors are open,” she said.

Hollywood sign

Alongside Marvel star Ms Pugh – who elicited more than 750,000 Instagram likes after posting a picture of the LA-inspired “Hollywood” sign above the Co Wicklow village of the same name – The Wonder’s cast includes Tom Burke, and Irish actors Niamh Algar and Elaine Cassidy.

Ms Lamptey hailed the “amazing” discovery of Ms Cassidy’s daughter Kíla Lord Cassidy in the key role of 11-year-old Anna, a girl said to have survived without food for months.

“Ed [Guiney] jokes with me about why I do this, why I set up film projects based on finding an extraordinary child. What if we didn’t find her?” said Ms Donoghue.

The novelist, Oscar nominated for her screenplay of Room, said The Wonder’s acclaimed Chilean director Sebastián Lelio will bring a “dazzling” outsider’s perspective to the film, which she has adapted together with Lelio and screenwriter Alice Birch. The “hot hands” at Element, who also co-produced Room, “would never make an Irish film that made me wince”, she added.

Having seen “the first dailies from the wilds of Wicklow”, the Canada-based writer – currently adapting her 2020 Spanish flu novel The Pull of the Stars – said she was thrilled by The Wonder’s casting, its swift journey to screen and the representation of women in behind-the-scenes roles.

“It’s not going to sound or look like what you would expect of 19th century Ireland,” Ms Donoghue said. “The whole thing feels like it is tingling with excitement.”

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