Fuelled by Gothic echoes of Mary Shelley or the misty Wuthering Heights, Gwen is a slow burning, almost folkloric tragedy set in an isolated community in the Welsh mountains. In love with its beautiful landscapes and equally pretty close ups of its pensive heroine, this film dips its toes into a lot of genres. While marketed as a thriller and taking inspiration from horror at times, it has that token raw period feel we recognise in UK indies, unsurprising due to its BFI backing.
Director William McGregor establishes the bleak tone from the offset, opening with two sisters playing alone in the mists of the towering mountains of Snowdonia. Their innocent humming merges into the white noise of wind and empty space as they reach the quarry that will soon serve as the ultimate antagonistic force of authority, money and power. In the road, they pass the bodies of a family, anonymous and discarded, and it’s an image that haunts the older sister as her story continues.
For this is Gwen (marvelously cast Eleanor Worthington-Cox), the provider of her family with her father absent at war, her sister small and sweet, and her mother (Maxine Peake) struggling to keep her temper in. It’s a laborious rural life anyway, but when their sheep are killed in the night, her mother begins having fits, and a human heart is found hammered to their door, it’s clear that Gwen is being kept in the dark about her situation.
First impressions from the film’s trailer and marketing might draw similarities as a Welsh version of Robert Egger’s The Witch, but comparisons to God’s Own Country and Lady Macbeth might be closer to the mark. It is, at its heart, a story about three women ostracised from their community, but this theme often falls through the cracks. Determined to keep the women divided, the film misses an emphasis on solidarity in its bleak context that could’ve made it special, even if it wanted to keep its story tragic.
A slow pace is fine, but fewer landscapes of mountains and Gwen staring out of windows might have improved what sometimes feels like a drag of time. Despite its concise 84-minute run time, events run out of steam at the midpoint. Things are bleak – but how much bleaker can they get? With odds so strongly stacked against them, you’re sitting there just waiting for Worthington-Cox’s resilient heroine to get a glimmer of hope to keep fighting – that you’re still waiting for in the credits.
Commendable for its succinct storytelling and lead performances, Gwen is an evocative, poignant tale, even if you can predict the downward direction of the heroines’ fate from the first few minutes. Less of the horror/thriller it’s presented as, and more a gritty folkloric tragedy worthy of the halls of UK indies, there’s a lot to be enjoyed if you know what you’re getting yourself into.
Gwen is streaming on Shudder now
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.