Most known for his contributions to British television, ranging from BBC’s gothic costume-drama Poldark to Channel 4’s raucous teen-comedy Misfits, writer-director William McGregor makes his feature-length debut with Gwen; a slow-burning, candle-lit exploration of an implosive family unit set in rural, 19th Century Snowdonia. It’s a folk tale, yet another take on the horror sub-genre that has had somewhat of a revival of late: joining the likes of Robert Egger’s The Witch and Ari Aster’s Midsommar as shining examples of the contemporary cinematic desire for folk fables.
The ever-impressive and simply revelatory Eleanor Worthington-Cox is Gwen, the eldest daughter to Elen (Maxine Peake) and older sister to Mari (Jodie Innes). She is the nucleus of a destructive family unit left disassembled due to the absence of her father, who is told has left to join ‘the fighting’. Raised on one of the very few farmlands left during the emergence of the Industrial Revolution, with vast greenery being replaced by lucrative, land-stealing quarries, Gwen bares most of the maternal responsibilities bestowed upon her by her grief-struck mother. But when crops and livestock begin to mysteriously die, the North Walian family unit suffer catastrophic setbacks that could mean the end of their family farm.
Being a self-proclaimed “farm boy turned film boy”, there’s a certain transparency to director William McGregor’s personal experiences as a child who grew up on a pig farm in rural Norfolk here. The sense of dread and paranoia that is conjured through his imagination as an adolescent is in full force with Gwen, with the heightened sound effects and an absence of a continuous non-diegetic score adding to the tense, brooding energy surrounding the film. The whistling of the wind as it reverberates off the nearby mountains, the crackling of the fire as its timber ignites and splinters, the ear-piercing creaking of wooden doors; these are all quintessential Jane Eyre-esque gothic tropes that heighten the sense of unsettlement that McGregor wants his audience to feel. And it works. There is an oxymoronic claustrophobia that surrounds the vast Snowdonian landscape, with the small family home being set against the backdrop of the breathtaking North Walian scenery; brought to life through some truly astonishing wide-lens photography by cinematographer Adam Etherington.
Equally as breath-taking are the performances on display. Worthington-Cox shows unrelenting confidence towards her first leading role as the titular star, baring upon her shoulders the verisimilitude of McGregor’s eerie fable. She shows maturity beyond her years, matching the well-oiled and experienced Maxine Peake in every capacity (I mean that in the nicest of ways). The biggest compliment I can pay is that the family truly feel like a family. Maxine Peake is peak Maxine by bringing to the fore a resoundingly provocative emotional and physical performance as the mother burdened by internalised grief, a grief that materialises itself through spontaneous fits of rage towards her daughters. In that sense her character is very similar to Essie Davis’ likeminded approach to subconsciously violent grief in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.
But Gwen is entirely original, despite its homages to some of horror’s best. McGregor and co. have conjured something truly disquieting. It tackles timeless issues of capitalism, the villainous, top-hat-wearing quarry owner (played with true boisterousness by Mark Lewis Jones) seeking to destroy local farms, and there’s even an empowering feminist message to be found with its depiction of a female-driven family unit opposing the chauvinistic, patriarchal dominance of the local community. Yet by the time the end credits roll, there’s a sense of morbid optimism and hopefulness that follows the preceding barbarity. Grief can do monstrous things to decent people, but deep within there is a hidden peace to be discovered. The peace in Gwen is one of maternal protection, and in that sense, McGregor’s film is a chilling, gothic depiction of familial anxieties when faced with unflinching hatred. I, for one, cannot wait to see what McGregor has in store next.