The Welsh hillside takes you in as the misty fogs deepen and carry the secrets of the unknown. These secrets have the power to lift or break us. However, as revealed by writer and director William McGregor’s film GWEN, secrets kept with the best of intentions do more harm than good. And, once finally revealed, there is nothing to do to stop the full aftermath of the consequences such revealed secrets can unleash. That is where the horror in this film lies, but the attempts to imbue the film with a tangible supernatural touch that ends up teasing the audience without the benefit of fulfillment does not go unnoticed.
In the film, GWEN is a young girl whose life is outstandingly difficult and seems to be getting worse as the film progresses. Her father has left to fight in a war, leaving her family of women alone to fend for themselves in a village teeming with men who work in the quarry. These men seek to take the family home as the land itself is full of resources that the quarry can take advantage of for profit. However, until her father gets home, no decisions will be made. However, mysterious incidents start to take hold of the family as if an unlucky cloud is just hovering over their heads. Her mother starts to develop a mysterious illness that slowly starts to waste her away. Whole livestock are slaughtered cruelly and no one will buy their goods to see that they can put food in their bellies. Everything is going wrong and, as the film progresses, the titular character’s strength and will are tested up until the very climax of the film.
This film is very much a slow-burn, which will prove to be a burden for impatient audiences eager for the horror that the film’s trailer teases. Unfortunately, for those who do have the patience to wait out the film’s end, their patience may not be rewarded in the way they would have hoped. There is much menace lurking in the background of the story’s plot. A family is wiped out from cholera. Men have gone off to war. The rest are working in the quarry under questionable conditions and being overwhelmed by their greed. And, for the titular character’s family, they are isolated by their own land (captured beautifully by cinematographer Adam Etherington) and their own demons. All of these elements combined, plus the threat of the supernatural element teased could have come together to make for an intriguing horror film in its own right. Instead, what the audience would expect to happen is not delivered. And that is honestly the biggest ding against the film.
However, what does carry the film is the incredible acting delivered by Eleanor Worthington-Cox, who plays the titular GWEN, and Maxine Peake, who plays mother Elen. The natural tension and drama the two manage to build throughout the course of the film is believable. You can tell that they love each other immensely, but that they both have opposing views of what needs to be done while waiting for the father figure to return from war. Watching Peake’s Elen deteriorate under the stress of maintaining a home and finances while her husband is gone is arguably the most painful thing to witness as you want to reach through the screen and shake her stubborn resolve out of her and force her to rest. But, it is ultimately Worthington-Cox’s performance as GWEN that stands out. We watch as she maneuvers through the emotional minefields that her character as to tackle, with each new horrible thing that arises breaking her down steadily. By the time the film reaches its climax, you hope that something good will finally happen for the family. And, it is within that hope, that all hearts will be crushed.
Overall, GWEN successfully tackles the subject of men’s greed and the horrible actions that greed and fear can influence a man to do while also tackling the dangers of isolation. While many might compare this film to THE WITCH, it is very clear that this film is meant to be the thriller it has labeled itself to be despite its slow burn. While there is teasing of a possible supernatural influence plaguing this small family of women, there is little pay off when the truth is revealed in the bloody finale. This supernatural hinting may confuse those who go in expecting abject horror. However, we have to remind ourselves that this film is not a horror film. It has been advertised as a thriller. As such, it does its job, especially if one looked at the film as a slightly more abstract analysis of the encroaching threat of industrialization and its impact on the weak and vulnerable. If you can focus more on that, then there is more to gain from the piece as a viewer.
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