22nd Jul2019

‘Gwen’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Maxine Peake, Richard Harrington, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Mark Lewis Jones, Richard Elfyn, Jodi Innes, Dyfrig Evans | Written and Directed by William McGregor

gwen-poster

The debut feature from writer-director William McGregor, Gwen is a dark, chilling period drama that cleverly blends Gothic horror and social realism. As such, it’s an arresting and memorable first feature that marks out McGregor as a talent to watch.

Set in North Wales in the mid-19th century, the film stars Eleanor Worthington-Cox (The Enfield Haunting) as Gwen, a teenager who lives with her younger sister Mari (Jodi Innes) and sickly mother Elen (Maxine Peake) on a rural farm in Snowdonia. The trio are patiently awaiting the return of Gwen’s father (Dyfrig Evans), who’s off fighting in the Crimean War, but a run of bad luck (a rotten potato crop, murdered livestock, a lame horse) befalls the farm, putting its future in jeopardy. Meanwhile, local slate baron Mr Wynne (Mark Lewis Jones) has designs on their property and keeps trying to force Elen to sell up.

With minimal dialogue and an equally sparse plot, the hook of the film comes from the growing suspicion (for both the audience and the main characters) that their increasingly disturbing troubles might actually be supernatural in origin, perhaps even the result of dark magic, as hinted by a nail-infested animal’s heart they find pinned to their front door. To that end, McGregor’s direction creates an extremely effective atmosphere, as well as creating a strong sense of the unrelenting bleakness that surrounds the family farm.

Throughout the film, McGregor builds tension by inserting dreamlike sequences (lots of dark figures in swirling mist, that sort of thing), which become increasingly menacing. He’s also not above throwing in a well-timed jump scare or two, at least one of which is genuinely scary.

As evidenced in his TV work directing episodes of Poldark, McGregor clearly has an affinity for landscape and his vistas here are starkly beautiful, thanks to striking cinematography from Adam Etherington that emphasises the looming banks of slate, symbolic of the Industrial Revolution that’s about to lay waste to the area’s farming culture.

In addition, McGregor and Etherington include a number of haunting images, from the horrors of a field of bloodied sheep to a stunningly lit interior that looks like a glimpse into hell. The atmosphere is further heightened by some superlative sound design work, not least during a particularly nasty sequence involving the family horse.

Previously best known for her stage role as Matilda, Eleanor Worthington-Cox delivers an assured performance as Gwen that seems to hover right on the edge of childhood and adulthood, making this a de facto coming-of-age tale on top of everything else. Accordingly, she’s charming and sweet in her interactions with much younger Mari, while also assuming the weight of more and more responsibility as her mother’s illness grows worse.

Similarly, Maxine Peake plays Elen as a compelling mix of toughness and tenderness, seeking to hold everything together for the sake of her family, but gradually coming apart, to heart-breaking effect. In fairness, she doesn’t quite nail the Welsh accent, but then none of the rest of the cast quite manage it either, so that’s a minor quibble at best.

**** 4/5

Gwen is on limited released in the UK now.

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