GWEN **** UK 2018 Dir: William McGregor. 84 mins
A strikingly shot feature debut for prodigiously talented writer-director William McGregor, whose TV background in POLDARK and MISFITS recently evolved with a major gig on HIS DARK MATERIALS. Unfolding in mid-19th century Snowdonia it captures a vivid sense of imminent economic ruin as the eponymous Gwen (brilliantly played by Eleanor Worthington-Cox) struggles to survive with her younger sister and a mother (Maxine Peake) visibly and emotionally hardened by labour and loneliness. The man of the house is away at war and the neighbouring family have been wiped out by cholera, while the advent of slate mining threatens their farming livelihood. As church sermons warn of disease and the temptations of Satan and Mum is increasingly prone to breathing problems and epileptic fits, Gwen senses a presence outside their home at night that might or might not be supernatural.
McGregor’s evocation of the time and place is remarkably atmospheric, sustaining an almost overwhelming sense of dread that positions GWEN as a horror film even if its genre credentials mostly stretch no further than images of slaughtered livestock, bloody handprints on walls and organs nailed to a door. Peake’s controlled portrayal of the stern matriarch captures a mood of mounting despair, while McGregor’s use of ambient sound, sparse dialogue and a discordant original score reinforce the grim, unforgiving mood. The movie briefly bows to genre convention for one single, startling moment (a nightmare shock effect) and pays off with a discreet, climactic scene of violence before a hollow final “escape” leaves the fate of the protagonists suitably ambiguous.
Review by Steven West