[SHUDDER] ‘GWEN’: THE HILLS ARE ALIVE WITH THE FORCES OF EVIL

This period-piece, feature debut by Director William McGregor plays out more like a gothic horror novella than a modern scary movie. 

GWEN

Starring: Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Maxine Peake, Jodie Innes
Directed by: William McGregor
Screenplay by: William McGregor

Gwen sets the scene with a beautiful but brooding landscape in 19th century Snowdonia, North Wales. In a desolate farm with a dimly lit interior, our protagonist and namesake Gwen resides. This period-piece, feature debut by Director William McGregor plays out more like a Gothic horror novella than a modern scary movie.  Similar to The Witch, it is a quiet, slow-burn exercise full of a sequence of events that become creepier and catastrophe reigns … but without the payoff you’d expect in a film like this.

Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) is the oldest of two girls who helps her mother around the farm while her father is away at war. The tasks assigned to her are not easy ones. There is a scene where she is literally digging potatoes out of the ground with her bare hands. In another, she burns the dinner for the entire family.

However, still a young teenager, she is also tasked to take care of her little sister Mari (Jodie Innes) and finds times to play and entertain her in this desolate area in the mountains. While playing outside, she and her sister witness some bodies being pulled out of the neighboring farm. Gwen asks the doctor what happened, but he urges her and her sister to stay away. He tells them cholera is spreading around the community. The film only gets grimmer from here.

Elen (Maxine Peake), the mother, is a strict, disciplinarian who struggles to conceal a mysterious illness similar to epilepsy from her daughters. However, in the midst of this, the Industrial Revolution is coming to an end, and open cast flint mines are taking over the mountainside and driving landowners off their farms. Elen is visited a few times and approached even at church in regards to her plot, but she insists it is her and her daughter’s home, and they will not be going anywhere. The pressure to sell only gets worse, and after finding all their sheep slaughtered and splayed on their land, Elen still stands firm on. However, her ailing health leaves the girls vulnerable. Gwen takes on more of a leader role in the household and on the farm to let her mother rest.

The movie Gwen is pretty dismal from start to finish. There are a few, small elements of mysticism that has the viewer wondering if there is more at play here than the pressure from the neighboring village and ruthless paymaster of the local quarry looking to seize their land. While McGregor does try to give us an array of questions and cryptic clues during the first half, it doesn’t quite deliver the answers we were hoping for … or at all in some cases. He even introduces characters into these women’s lives but offers little significance or explanation. The film is shrouded in mystery and skepticism but not always due to the plot.

Besides feeling bad for Gwen and her misfortune throughout the film, I found myself struggling to be invested in the women. There is little dramatic justification to everything being put on them that instead of feeling moved, I felt detached. Worthington-Cox’s performance as Gwen keeps this film afloat through the flimsy narrative, while Peake’s performance as Elen feels underused. The location it was filmed at was breathtaking, though, and gave me a Weathering Heights aesthetic. While there are a lot of good ideas here, I don’t think McGregor fully knew what sort genre he wanted to commit to tell this story. Hybrids aren’t a bad thing, of course. Movies can fall in more than one category, but this one felt as confused as we were watching it.

GWEN

6.4

Gothic Horror Elements

7.0/10

Overall storyline

5.0/10

Beautiful landscapes of Wales

8.0/10

Slow burn story pay off

5.0/10

Gwen as a character

7.0/10

Pros

  • Dark and brooding with beautiful shots of the Wales mountain side and elegant interior shots.
  • Eleanor Worthington-Cox's amazing performance.
  • Creepy nightmare sequences.

Cons

  • Story wasn't very engaging overall.
  • No real justice within such a sad story.
  • Movies struggled with what genre it wanted to be.
  • Hard to get invested in the characters.

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