Gwen is an atmospheric and acting gem, but it doesn’t quite come together in the way that it wants to.
Writer-director William McGregor’s Gwen is a Gothic folk horror film featuring a battle of wills between two strong women, their surroundings, and the men who hope to drain them dry. Its plot is straightforward enough: Elen (Maxine Peake) lives alone and isolated with her two daughters on the bleak, storm-washed Welsh countryside. Her husband is long gone, she has a strange illness, their crops and flocks have begun mysteriously dying off, the men in the village have essentially shunned them, and her eldest daughter–the titular Gwen (Eleanor Worthington Cox)–wants answers.
Gwen brims with atmosphere. The Welsh landscape yawns before them, a built-in adversary for Gwen’s struggling family. It reluctantly yields crops which they struggle to sell in town, it physically isolates them from society. The wind constantly blows, washing the soundscape with an ever-present onslaught. Everything about the production design just screams authenticity and care, evoking The Witch from a few years ago.
Eleanor Worthington Cox puts forth a fantastic, reserved performance as Gwen. I last saw her in The Enfield Haunting, where she played the similarly tortured Janet. She and her mother butt heads in a traditional teenager vs. parent way, yet her mother’s actions do indeed grow increasingly strange and off-putting throughout the course of the film. Gwen stands with resilience against her mother’s erratic behavior, striving desperately to save their farm and way of life. However, her world has been stacked against her. Cox plays all this in a complex, thoughtful manner. She struggles with new things expected of her as the eldest child in the family with the irrationality of the male-driven world around her. When they go to church, everyone around her whispers and points; parents steer their children away from Gwen, yet she has no idea why. Cox so purposefully and subtly depicts the confusion that comes with this public shunning, standing up to her mother, resolutely pushing forward with life, helping shelter her sister from the encroaching psychological fright. She carries nearly every scene, often with mere looks rather than dialogue. This young actress is one to watch, for sure.
Similarly, Maxine Peake portrays a woman on the verge of breakdown, essentially a forecast of what Gwen may someday become. She’s taught her daughter strength of will, yet her own strength is waning in the face of the relentless onslaught of life. Both Peake and Cox give powerful, noteworthy performances.
Gwen only falters in how everything comes together. This is certainly a Gothic folk horror film in that it’s much more psychological and atmospheric in nature than actually supernatural. But the difficulty is that McGregor’s direction all but confirms a supernatural element–the mother may be a witch of some kind, but this never comes to fruition. In the end, Gwen and her mother face-off very real enemies: men trying to steal their farm from them. Nothing pays off in the supernatural. I’m all for the suggestion of the supernatural, but either leave it as a mere suggestion or give in to it (like The Witch or The Lodgers). All that to say, it’s a strong, layered film that waffled just a bit upon landing.