Gwen: A spooky blend of unsettling atmospherics and ultra-violence

Review: Maxine Peake is terrifying. But Eleanor Worthington-Cox carries the film

Eleanor Worthington-Cox as Gwen

Film Title: Gwen

Director: William McGregor

Starring: Maxine Peake, Eleanor Worthington Cox, Richard Harrington, Mark Lewis Jones, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Jodie Innes

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 84 min

Fri, Jul 19, 2019, 05:00

   

This lovely, spooky thing stars the up-and-coming Eleanor Worthington-Cox as Gwen, a teenager struggling to take care of a younger sibling (Jodie Innes) and ailing mother in dankest 19th-century Snowdonia. An ominous opening scene tracks the unfortunate sisters as they walk inwards from the crashing waves of the Welsh coastline to where the kindly local doctor (the excellent Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) sees to the cholera dead. 

In the coming days, Gwen discovers that the crops are not growing properly and the sheep have been slaughtered. An attempt to sell their meagre vegetables at market ends with the death of the family horse. All the while, Gwen’s mother (Maxine Peake) is behaving in increasingly erratic ways and is engaging in occultish-looking bloodletting rituals in her room.

The final scenes can’t quite marry the film’s supernatural and shifting societal themes

Are these actions borne of scientific ignorance? Or is something more witchy going on? Might the family be cursed? The hostile behaviour of locals and the strange creeping noises around the house at night point to a folkloric explanation. The greedy industrialists at the local quarry, goons who are determined to seize the family’s land, indicate that Gwen’s woes are rooted in patriarchal and capitalist ambitions.  

Gwen official trailer

The final scenes, although memorable and shocking, can’t quite marry the film’s supernatural and shifting societal themes. No matter.

The impressive debut from writer-director William McGregor (Poldark, Misfits) balances unsettling atmospherics and ultra-violence with stately pacing and windswept, Burkean sublime scenery (brilliantly shot by DOP Adam Etherington). Peake is prickly and borderline terrifying throughout.

But it is Worthington-Cox who carries the picture. The youngest-ever recipient of the Laurence Olivier Award (for her work on the West End production of Matilda) rightly received the Toronto International Film Festival Rising Star award for her work on Gwen.

A welcome addition to the contemporary canon of almost-horrors.