Gwen, the first feature from writer-director William McGregor, has drawn comparisons to another stunning debut, The Witch, due to its chilly atmosphere, old-timey setting, and strong, young female lead. Where that film rather convincingly made the case for a supernatural entity, this one takes a vaguer, more intriguing route. Is it ghosts, is it madness, or is it just a mother-daughter relationship gone awry?
Our heroine is Gwen (played with real grit and gumption by The Enfield Haunting‘s Eleanor Worthington-Cox), a young lady living a harsh life during the industrial revolution in Wales. Her family, comprising sister, mother, and absent father, ekes out a living by selling the crops grown on their farm at a local market. Although the skies above loom grey and large, Gwen is reasonably content.
As the story begins, she and her sister stumble upon a load of supposedly cholera-ridden bodies being cleared out of a neighboring house. Although these poor sods supposedly perished due to illness, something more sinister seems to be afoot. Indeed, later that night, Gwen is roused from her slumber by strange noises on the moors outside. But, when she goes to investigate, there’s nobody (or nothing) there.
The following day, when Gwen tries to broach the subject with her mother (played by a steely Maxine Peake), she dodges the issue. Later, Gwen spots her having a secretive conversation with a man. Then, when they arrive home, there’s an animal heart nailed to their door. Aside from wondering whether her mother is about to sell the house out from under them, Gwen becomes increasingly concerned she might be falling victim to a more malevolent entity than greedy locals.
Gwen walks a very fine line for much of its run-time, toying with the idea that Gwen’s mother is possessed or worse via short, sharp shocks of strange, often otherworldly violence. Worthington-Cox plays the titular character with a strong core, but she’s unsure of herself enough to know that she still needs her mother around to protect her, never mind Gwen’s younger sister, who seems oblivious to much of what’s happening around her.
The specter of poverty hangs low over everything, like the encroaching fog just outside the window. Gwen’s mother is clearly trying to keep them afloat in increasingly difficult circumstances and, as a woman without her husband, she’s in a far more precarious position than her children could ever understand. McGregor communicates their family’s distance from the rest of their tight-knit community in church-set sequences, when everybody seems to be sitting as far away from them as possible.
Likewise, Gwen’s isolation is further solidified when she ventures to market alone and hordes of townspeople walk right past her as she tries to flog the family’s wares, almost like the young woman is a ghost herself. Even without any genre elements, the world Gwen presents is a harsh, uncaring one. It’s evident how cold the actors must have been shooting the bloody thing on location in Wales, which again emphasizes the harshness of the landscape.
The film doesn’t over-explain itself, whether in relation to what’s really going on with the girls’ mother, or what happened to their father, or even why everybody is upping sticks and leaving town — is it because they’re being forced out, or is something more sinister at play? Gwen works because McGregor gives us the breadcrumbs but never the full loaf. Whether or not you believe something is really up with these people is entirely, and purposely, open to interpretation.
McGregor coaxes a strong, and fully committed, performance from relative newcomer Worthington-Cox in the lead role. She’s all wide eyes and held back tears at first, particularly as her mother unravels, but her Gwen emerges as a formidable force once their family is threatened. Peake is equally great opposite her, the seasoned performer offering a vanity-free take on a difficult woman who, even in her darkest moments, is still just trying to get by.
Gwen is all atmosphere, a chilly feeling permeating through every corner of its expertly-curated frame. Much like The Witch, it feels like we’ve been plopped down into a specific moment in time, rather than transported to the renaissance fair taking place off Route 90. The cinematography by Adam Etherington, also, astonishingly, making his feature debut, incorporates mostly deep blues and greys so that even when we can’t see the characters’ breaths, we still feel the encroaching cold.
As a debut, Gwen is hugely impressive. As a showcase for two female talents, at vastly different stages of their careers, it’s a triumph. As a horror story, it may seem tame for hardcore fans, but the real fear comes not from the possibly supernatural elements but from women being forced into roles they’ve occupied for far too long and told to stay put no matter what, from a daughter watching the woman who protects her from the world falling victim to it, and from scarily human forces circling with only bad intentions. It’s scarily relevant nowadays, too.
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): William McGregor
Writer(s): William McGregor
Stars: Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Maxine Peake, Mark Lewis Jones, Richard Harrington
Release date: October 8, 2019 (DVD and Blu-ray)
Studio/Production Company: BFI Film Fund
Run Time: 84 minutes