Not a stone’s throw in period, tone, setting and content from Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, Brit writer/ director William McGregor’s Gothic family drama tells an unbearable battle for survival in 19th century Snowdonia. On its surface, Gwen is a story of a fraught farm family lead by sick mother Elen (Maxine Peake) with two daughters Gwen (Eleanor Worthington Cox) and Mari (Jodi Innes), fighting poverty, property developers and indefinite grief while waiting for their husband/ father to return (possibly) from the Crimean war. Gwen also tells of the social realist class struggle during the industrial revolution which informs the backdrop of its family drama.
Haunted hills, moors and cholera-ravaged locals living in uninhabitable conditions shape the characters’ lives and director McGregor’s style during a dank but arresting set-up, but sadly the script then saunters directionless in the centre which makes Gwen incredibly trying. Intensifying hardships also contribute to McGregor’s film being a gruelling watch yet there is no denying the incredible film-making craft on display. The striking eyes of McGregor and cinematographer Adam Etherington, whose dank charcoal hues infuse a ghostly Poe air, work wonders when garnering a brutal realism which amplifies the horror to make Gwen intense and frightening.
These facets are not utilised in a way which makes Gwen a horror per se, despite on a few occasions seeming executed as such: two of its sharp frights are much more effective than any in recent Conjuring universe and Blumhouse films. White sheets hanging on hooks look like ghosts and scenes featuring children investigating noises at night seem clichéd but are heart stopping. Flickering candles, black fences, burning crucifixes, misty moors, burnt skulls and houses with the type of “windows that faces look in at”, make Gwen much more than a stark historical drama.
Further disturbances arise when Gwen is forced to slaughter the family horse then watch as mum decapitates it. She also has terrifying nightmares about her father while a shadowy figure prowls the farm at night. Mum pricks her finger for blood to smear on her cheeks to look healthy, but when her sickness gets worse, so does the pressure on Gwen and Mari to sell more veg at the local market to pay for her mediation. Local property developers terrify the family by nailing an animal heart to their door and slaughtering their livestock. Another scene in which Gwen catches mum slicing her arm is upsetting: “sin can be relived through the skin. Blood releases evil,” (apparently).
Gwen gets more distressing (and better) as it progresses after a mid-point plot slump into grim Snowdonia hell, before ascending to a devastating, Frankenstein-like finale featuring torch brandishing locals. Despite the agonising midway plot drop, McGregor has crafted a raw, uncompromising, pitiless work, bolstered by fantastic performances, timeless social parallels and fractured family drama which combine to make Gwen a perpetually tough but thankfully brief (84 minutes) and imperative watch.