Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Movie Review: Gwen

Gwen ** ½ / *****
Directed by: William McGregor.
Written by: William McGregor.
Starring: Eleanor Worthington-Cox (Gwen), Maxine Peake (Elen), Mark Lewis Jones (Mr. Wynne), Richard Harrington (Edward Morris), Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Doctor Wren), Richard Elfyn (Minister Bowen), Dyfrig Evans (Father), Gwion Glyn (Harri Morris), Jodie Innes (Mari).
 
Gwen is a slow-burn horror film, that finally just fizzles out. It’s a short film – just over 80 minutes – and a stylish one at that. It’s a testament to director William McGregor that he is so good at creating atmosphere that he keeps you hooked into the film, even as not a whole lot happens in the film beyond its slow moving parade of misery. It’s barely even a horror film, although yes, what happens in the film is horrific But really, the film is more about what happens when the world moves on, and you are left behind. The ending puts an exclamation point on it because clearly the filmmakers felt it needed one – but it also kind of comes out of nowhere.
 
The title character, Gwen (a very good Eleanor Worthington-Cox) is a young teenager in the early days of the industrial revolution in Wales. She lives on a farm with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and her younger sister – her father is away in the war. The family is struggling to make ends meet – the keep the farming running without the father around, and Gwen is forced to do a lot more work than she probably can handle – although the same is true for her mother (as for the younger sister, she’s barely even a character in the film – she shows up, I think, to give a little extra emotional weight to the proceedings). What was once their small farming community – just a few families working the land – has become a company town – run by the quarry. The quarry wants the family farm – and are not taking no for an answer. The family is slowly becoming ostracized from the rest of the community – only the kindly (but not too kindly) Dr. Wren (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) shows any real kindness – which is needed when Elen gets sick with some sort of illness – which seems to be the only excuse needed to ostracize the family further – especially considering another of the farming families all recently died of some illness as well.
 
The film certainly has horror elements to it – although they really not overly pronounced, or even fully explored. It’s more glimpses of things that anything else. We are with Gwen from beginning to end – and she sees a lot of things she doesn’t wholly understand – whether it’s the company men and their talks with her mother, or the strange things her mother does. Whether there’s anything at all supernatural going on in the film is never really answered.
 
For most of the movie, it really is a parade of misery – as one bad thing after another happens to the family, and Gwen is stuck trying to process it all, and not really doing a good job at that. The film is very dark visually – even in the daytime, the dominant color is a drab grey, and the mood is pretty much the same.
 
The film is really about this family then – this family who cannot accept that their way of life is over, and as they try and hang for dear life, basically damn themselves. They are victims of “progress” in its ways – as society never moves forward, without leaving some people behind. I think you can argue that the horror movie elements aren’t really necessary at all – except try selling a film like this without horror movie elements. Its inspiration is likely Robert Eggers’ The Witch, although McGregor isn’t as good at ratcheting up the tension to insane levels, and instead has basically made a grim slog. The ending of the film – the very end anyway (as in the last line) is just about perfect – it doesn’t pretend that things are going to get any better for this family. What directly precedes it though doesn’t make all that much sense – more likely, McGregor needed a way to end the film with a bang, and this is the best he could come up with. The film shows talent – particularly by Worthington-Cox, who has a tricky role, and navigates it well, and in McGregor’s ability to create atmosphere, and a real sense of time and place. Ultimately though, Gwen is more than a little bit of a bummer – and it doesn’t provide enough, well anything (horror, energy, insight, etc.) to really justify being so, so grim.

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