Written and Directed by: William McGregor
Starring: Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Mark Lewis Jones, Maxine Peake
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The dark outside is calling for her.
With Gwen, William McGregor’s big-picture aim is to explore the horrors of capitalism, which is not exactly ground-breaking in and of itself. However, he does take a curious, unique route in doing so by specifically dwelling on the onset of industrial capitalism, a force that unleashed a steamroll that continues to bludgeon the masses to this day. By the time he’s threaded this through an elliptical narrative with sparse but powerful filmmaking (and tossed in a dash of folk occultism for good measure), he’s crafted one of the quietly great, unassuming little horror movies in recent memory.
I say “quiet” because Gwen kind of sneaks up on you. McGregor cobbles a pretty threadbare yet compelling tale out of a bunch of familiar parts that coalesce into a distinctive portrait of women under siege by sinister forces, some possibly supernatural, others very much not. Here’s what we know for sure: teenaged Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) lives with her domineering mother Elen (Maxine Peak) and younger sister Mari (Gwion Glyn) out in the craggy, unforgiving Welsh countryside of the 19th century. Somehow, the two sisters find time to be kids and play out on the desolate surroundings, even as their fellow villagers dump cholera-stricken bodies into a pile. Their mother—who has grown increasingly cold and distant as she waits for her husband to return from battle—offers little comfort in the home. Their crops and livestock mysteriously wither away, while representatives from the local quarry descend upon the property in the hopes the family will move out.
Something more otherworldly may also be afoot, and McGregor creates the impression through hushed, half-whispered tones. Gwen is one of those movies that just has a spooky aura. It’s shot with what appears to be mostly natural light and features delicate, lingering shots of foreboding landscapes and dim interiors. At times, it feels as though McGregor has transported the audience back in time and flung them into a cold, bleak world where nothing is forgiving, not even the church, whose parishioners cast wayward glances toward Gwen and her family, insinuating that they’re somehow community pariahs. A feeling of deep unease and uncertainty permeates every frame; the only certainty is that doom lurks from every angle, even in Gwen’s reveries about happier times spent with her father. There’s a sense those good times will never return because they’ve been ruthlessly snatched away by something, and the quarry men are coming to collect the rest.
A cursory glance at Gwen invites an obvious comparison to The Witch: both are naturalistic period pieces about outcast women, and each feels like it’s been conjured right out of the fogs and mist of time. But that’s just about where the similarities end since Robert Eggers’s film is more lucid than this one. He made no bones about announcing there’s actually a witch out in the woods, grinding babies into gristle and trying to seduce a young woman into doing the devil’s bidding. Gwen, on the other hand, is a bit more elusive and sparse in both story and overt scares since McGregor leaves a little bit more to the imagination and relies on that sinister ambiance to unsettle audiences. This is the type of movie where the biggest jolt is a well-timed thunderclap; it’s much more interested in slithering under your skin than making you jump out of it.
McGregor does share Eggers’s character-driven suppose, too. He’s heavily invested in the crumbling lives of this trio, and he hovers around the minutiae of their lives: the tense dinner table exchanges, the tender moments between the two sisters, the awkward church visits. Worthington-Cox feels like a star in the making as the title character, a headstrong but sometimes tentative girl grappling with troubles beyond her control. No one should endure what she does, much less someone her age, and she navigates it with a dogged sort of grace. Peak has a tricky role as a mother who feels compelled to treat her children roughly because that’s exactly how the world will treat them. It’s how it’s treated her, after all, because here she is, a possibly widowed mother forcing her child to carve up the family horse so they won’t starve. As much as Gwen is about a young woman facing an uncertain future, it’s also about a desperate mother forcing herself to show her children tough love. At various points, Elen is both an infuriating and empathetic presence, and it’s a testament to Peak’s performance that this character remains authentic throughout.
What’s overwhelmingly clear is that Elen is desperate, so much so that she appeals to apparent supernatural means to ward off whatever force has descended upon her home. It turns out that the most potent forces are definitively earthbound, as the capitalist machine gears up to grind these unwitting victims under the boots of its lackeys. The most powerful scenes in the film find the family confronting these forces: one involves a helpless Gwen’s desperate attempt to sell some wares at a marketplace that shuns her, while another highlights the desperate measure the girl must take to steal some medicine for her ailing mother. A climactic instance cleverly reconfigures the classic torch-bearing villagers motif into a sinister showdown where those wielding power learn that their targets might not be as powerless as they’ve supposed.
Gwen is so slippery that you’re not quite sure if the climax is going to feature an exorcism or just some good old- fashioned cathartic bloodletting. Some might be frustrated that the supernatural threads never quite coalesce with everything else at work here, as they mostly remain at the edges to suggest something even more sinister, almost as if the flame of these otherworldly forces becomes bulled by the thudding horrors of reality. There is no salvation from this capitalist hell forged by man itself, and God is either powerless or just plain unwilling to stop it. The magic and superstition that once thrived in the old world tucked away in these hills no longer possesses its potency. All that’s left is desolation and the glimmer of a fading hope for two girls cast in the wayward winds of an uncertain fate.
Gwen is a reminder that some movies need time to work their magic. Had I written this review immediately after my viewing, it may have been more dismissive; however, letting it simmer in my brain has done wonders for it and uncovered layers that weren’t there at first glance. Sometimes, this is what you want: a movie that seems a little jagged and puzzling that becomes more interesting as you turn it over and ponder those rough edges. Doing so for Gwen reveals a film that’s unconventionally haunting in its grim world view, which suggests life is a turbulent series of violence, loss, and despair. It’s certainly not unique in its nihilistic outlook, but McGregor handles it with a delicacy and thoughtfulness that’s more affecting than wallowing in unrelenting misery for the sake of it. God is dead, Gwen insists, but we must endure anyway.
Gwen is available on Blu-ray RLJE Films, with a pair of interviews with Peake and Worthington-Cox as supplements. The film is also currently streaming on Shudder.
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