After winning the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature at the 2019 Edinburgh International Film Festival and various other accolades in Europe, William McGregor’s debut feature Gwen is opening in selected theaters across the U.S. this August. Some critics have compared it to Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013) and other historical dramas with supernatural elements but don’t be misled by those comparisons. The horrors that await Gwen are grounded in reality – sickness, animal deaths, misogyny and grinding poverty.
The film, which is set in Snowdonia, Wales and was filmed there, takes place around 1855 during the industrial era. Elen (Maxine Peake) and her two daughters are the few remaining inhabitants of a small farming community that has dwindled over the years due to deaths, inclement weather or Mr. Wynne (Mark Lewis Jones), the owner of the local quarry which has become the village’s main source of work and income. Wynne has threatened or forced other farmers to sell their land and move away – maybe he has even murdered some – but Elen continues to hold out hope that her husband will return from the war and save the farm.
The emotional stress and financial pressure on Elen have taken a toll and Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) begins to realize the precariousness of their situation. Her only moments of joy amid the gathering gloom are playing games with her young sister Mari (Jodie Innes) or recalling happier times when her father was present.
[Spoilers ahead] Then the trouble begins and it comes in waves. Neighbors die from cholera. Crops fail. Sheep are found killed and mutilated. When Gwen takes the farm’s meager crop of vegetables to market for sale, no one will buy them. On the way home through a fog-laden forest, the sound of a gunshot frightens Gwen’s horse and the animal gallops off, injuring its leg and must be put down.
Worse things are in store and Gwen begins to sense the village turning against them. She thinks she hears someone or something creeping outside the house one night. Another time the family returns from church to find what looks like the heart of an animal nailed to their door. And then Elen begins to have seizures and to behave erratically. The film reaches a crisis point when Elen shares a long held secret with Gwen regarding her father. This revelation is not only devastating but also adds a bitter irony to the film’s final fadeout.
Gwen is a journey into a black pit of despair yet it has a sense of authenticity that rings true to the time and place. Snowdonia, Wales during the late 1880s could be an inhospitable place, especially for women. As depicted in McGregor’s film, the region was a patriarchal society with Gwen’s village being dominated by a ruthless landowner while the villagers were a mixture of the god-fearing and the superstitious.
The performances are spot-on, especially Eleanor Worthington-Cox as the title character, and the look and feel of Gwen is almost visceral (the cinematography is by Adam Etherington). This is a world where the sun rarely shines. The skies are almost always slate gray and cloudy with frequent rain and fog. Yet the lonely, remote landscape with its verdant hills, valleys and ancient rocks is beautiful to behold in a strange melancholy way. And the sound design (by Anna Bertmark) is richly layered and atmospheric, all of which slowly pulls you into an evocative and troubled world of the past.
There are a few scenes that have convinced some reviewers that Gwen is an art-house horror film: one is a nightmare that ends with a screaming banshee and another sequence which suggests ritualistic flesh cutting by Gwen’s tormented mother. But Gwen is much more of a slow-burn character study of a teenage girl encountering cruelty and injustice on her way to adulthood. A more apt comparison would be to Kenneth Loach’s Kes (1969), Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967) or even Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981) in which the young protagonists struggle to escape their miserable circumstances.
According to director McGregor in an interview with Deadline, “Gwen is a project that’s been evolving over the last eight years. It came out of a short film I made, called Who’s Afraid Of The Water Sprite, as a student. It’s a kind of dark, pastoral, Thomas Hardy-esque, landscape-driven narrative about a young girl growing up in difficult circumstances. It’s her coming of age story really.”
It might be tempting to pigeonhole Gwen as another entry in the cinema of miserablism but the title character is a like a candle in the darkness, providing a tiny light of hope, even at the grim finale. For those willing to take the plunge into darkness, the film can be an absorbing and even cathartic experience.
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