In Gwen, the cinematography of Adam Etherington greets the viewer with the beautiful green hills of the Welsh highlands. But the land’s beauty is quickly engulfed in darkness, as the village where writer/director William McGregor’s Gwen is set is polluted by madness, death, and greed.
Set during the outset of the Industrial Revolution, William McGregor’s horror tale is striking to look at, but frightening at the same time, as the farm where Gwen lives with her mother and little sister rarely sees sunlight. Inside, their home is equally as bleak, as they await their father to return from war. A home should be a place of safety for every family, but there’s something sinister lurking in the mist of the night air and calling out with the roar of the wind.
Gwen is a film that clearly has an itch for The Witch, but while it succeeds in creating a similar atmosphere, it lacks the lore to really make this a successful horror film. The village is plagued with death, which is supposedly from cholera, but animals are being slaughtered under mysterious circumstances. The narrative gives the impression that there is a monster in the darkness, but the film becomes a waiting game for a reveal that's never fully realized.
The true horror of this tale seems to be how poverty affects a family, especially the matriarch. Gwen’s mother slowly becomes more and more unhinged as the film progresses, and she begins to suffer from seizures that seemingly have no root cause other than being crushed under the weight of having to support a family that risks losing it all. As their animals are slaughtered and as selling vegetables at the market brings no riches, they must face the reality that they may have to sell their family farm, and if they don’t, they must face the violence of the greedy men who want them out.
Seeing a once happy family become so consumed by darkness, literally and figuratively, is hard to witness. The performances by the film’s leads only elevate this. Seeing both Maxine Peake as Gwen’s mother, Elen, and Eleanor Worthington-Cox as Gwen lose their faith and scream out in cries of suffering are some of the best dramatics of the year. And Gwen desperately trying to keep their family together, while her mother becomes the victim of depression, is stirring as well.
The family is the strength of Gwen, but in the end, there is so much mystery left uncovered. But there’s some really interesting imagery here, like Elen pricking her finger and using her own blood as blush, or the disturbing visions Gwen has of her mother, who seems to be demonically possessed. Gwen has many dreams/visions with disturbing or fantastical imagery that you wish were actually at the forefront of the film in order to create the horror that it lacks. “Unsatisfied” is a good word for how Gwen makes you feel, especially in regards to its ending. And the biggest scare you’ll get is the fear that your eardrums burst after hearing a huge crack of thunder (earphones not advised).
Movie Score: 2/5