Writer/director William McGregor’s feature debut Gwen is an effective example of what can be achieved on a low budget with a small but talented cast and a striking location. Where most British indie filmmakers struggle to mine the cinematic potential of Britain’s over-exposed urban areas, McGregor sets his folk-horror tinged gothic drama in the spectacularly moody Welsh valleys.
It’s there that the eponymous heroine, teenager Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox, exceptional), runs a small farm with her mother, Elen (Maxine Peake), and younger sister, Mari (Jodie Innes), while her father is off fighting in some unnamed conflict. It’s the beginning of the industrial revolution and the valleys of Snowdonia are being torn apart to make way for slate quarries. Unfortunately for Gwen and Elen, their farm is slap bang in the middle of the site where the local slate baron intends digging out his next quarry. A financial offer has been made, but Elen refuses to leave the family home.
At night, Gwen is disturbed by strange noises, and the following day the women return from church to find a sheep’s heart nailed to their front door. The next morning they wake to find their sheep have all been slaughtered. Gwen notes this as ominous, as their neighbors’ sheep were mysteriously massacred in similar fashion just before their farm was burnt down. Does the same fate await Gwen and her family? Are the baron’s men behind such intimidation or is a more unnatural force at play?
Elements of folk-horror - a sub-genre undergoing a recent revival with the likes of The Witch and Midsommar - come into play when Elen succumbs to a mysterious fever. Aware of the impending threat to her family and the farm, she begins engaging in strange rituals, slashing her arm and collecting her blood in a pot, and spreading fragments of a crushed sheep’s skull outside the farm’s gate.
What’s most terrifying about Gwen is how the threat appears not to be of any supernatural origin, but simply of human greed. As the baron’s chief enforcer, Mark Lewis Jones cuts a strikingly eerie figure, dressed top to toe in black like an industrial era Witchfinder, and parallels are drawn to the treatment of women suspected of witchcraft in the film’s exceptionally grim finale. Cinematographer Adam Etherington captures this part of the world in all its forbidding glory, and McGregor wisely chooses to eschew a musical score, relying instead on a symphony of battering winds, distant animal howls and the odd explosion from the encroaching quarries.
The atmosphere builds effectively to a fever pitch, but McGregor’s story ends exactly as you suspect it might, anti-climactic to a degree that may leave more narratively demanding viewers feeling they wasted their time. But Gwen’s brooding journey makes up for its underwhelming destination, and in Worthington-Cox we might just be witnessing the emergence of Britain’s newest young star.
Gwen - 4 stars out of 5
Director: William McGregor; Starring: Maxine Peake, Richard Harrington, Mark Lewis Jones, Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith
Eric Hillis is a film critic living in Dublin who runs the website TheMovieWaffler.com