Dir.: William McGregor; Cast: Maxine Peake, Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Jody Innes, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith; UK 2018, 88 min.
This Gothic coming of age folk tale is the big screen debut of TV director William McGregor, who is well known for his character based dramas such as Poldark. Gwen is a long version of his 2009 short film, which was shot in Slovenia. Falling between ultra-realism and English Gothic horror in the style of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, Gwen never quite lives up to its early promise, in spite of an evocative setting and haunting images by DoP Adam Etherington.
Set in 19th century Snowdonia during the industrial revolution, the story centres on 17-year old Gwen, her younger sister Mari (Innes) and mother Elen (Peake), an authoritative woman suffering from a epilepsy. Elen and Gwen look after the family’s small-holding, in the absence of the patriarch, who is fighting a far-away war. But doom and gloom overwhelms them from the start, with a series of tragic events: their sheep are slaughtered and have to be destroyed; the pack horse bolts at the stormy weather and has to be put down, and the local quarry owner puts in a bid to buy their farm, supported by the village elders. But Elen stubbornly resists, wanting to preserve the land for her husband’s home-coming (although she has been informed of his death).
Gwen’s life becomes increasingly difficult with her only male support being Dr Wren (Holdbrook-Smith). And just before gothic horror takes over completely in a bloody finale, we learn that even the good doctor is on the side of the evil-doers rather than our tragic heroine.
But McGregor then shifts from realism to full blown gothic horror with the introduction of jump scares and other well-worn horror tropes. Bloodletting and ghostly images of the missing father feel really superfluous – as are symbolic gestures, such as the rotten potato in the ground. Eleanor Worthington-Cox saves the day with a terrific performance as Gwen. She starred in the title role of the stage musical Matilda and is now in her late teens. Together with Maxine Peake she carries this hybrid feature to a devastating conclusion, bailing out the director and his simplistic over-the-top approach. AS
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