In 1862, British nurse Elizabeth Wright (Florence Pugh) was hired for an unusual job in a remote Irish village. She was told that she had to watch an 11-year old girl named Anna O'Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy), who was reported to have not been eating anything for the past four months. She was to report her professional objective findings to a council of elders which included a doctor (Toby Jones) and the parish priest (Ciaran Hinds).
Elizabeth was initially very skeptical about the whole assignment and was suspicious of the family, especially Anna's very religious and superstitious mother Rosaleen (Elaine Cassidy). Anna claimed that her health was being sustained by something she called "manna from heaven" and did not need any other form of human food. As Elizabeth got closer and earned Anna's confidence, she eventually drew her conclusions.
The way Florence Pugh is getting cast in all of these challenging roles she's in lately, she is really the present day equivalent of what Kate Winslet was two decades ago. Pugh's Mrs. Wright was aloof and no-nonsense. She carried a heavy emotional load herself, which would later lead to her letting down her guard. Pugh embodied Mrs. Wright's strength of character, ever steadfast to her professional code.
Kila Lord Cassidy struck me as a young Saoirse Ronan when she was starting out. Her sensitive and consistent portrayal of "fasting girl" Anna was remarkable for an actress her age, especially in those scenes when Anna was in physical difficulty. She held her own in her scenes with Pugh, as they developed an effective chemistry between them. Maybe it helped that her mother, actress Elaine Cassidy, was also there playing Anna's mother.
That it was Chilean director Sebastian Lelio (Oscar winner for "A Fantastic Woman" in 2017) who directed this film is impressive, as he perfectly captured the stifling atmosphere of Catholic fanaticism in 19th century rural Ireland as described in Emma Donoghue's book and screenplay. The technical aspects were likewise faultless, from the cinematography, editing, costume design and that unnerving musical score by Matthew Herbert.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."