Where does the horror lie in William McGregor’s Gwen? Is it in its simplicity? Does it have to do with his short film Who’s Afraid of the Water Sprite (click to view) which has lent its folk tale spirit to this, McGregor’s first feature-length film? Is it supernatural or the corporeal? Mental or physical? Gwen is all of these and none of these, ambiguously pulling us in every direction while keeping strict focus on the family at the center of its story.
The film reads a little like The Witch (or, if you’re so inclined, The VVitch) in that we’re watching an isolated 19th-century family dealing with misfortunes befalling their farm. Oldest daughter Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) starts seeing and hearing figures walking in their fields at night. Mother Elen (Maxine Peake) wakes up to find her livestock mysteriously slaughtered and suffers horrible seizures from overworking herself. Their horse scampers off after a louder-than-usual thunderclap (which, quite honestly, made me jump a few inches off my seat). Elen works hard to protect Gwen and Mari (Jodie Innes) from the world at their door, but there’s only so long before that door is forced in and broken.
The worse it gets, the more Gwen starts seeing things she shouldn’t, like Elen standing wraithlike in a doorway or evidence of the same afflictions happening to another family down the road. She also slowly starts understanding the not-so-random appearances of one of the more powerful men in town, Mr. Wynne (Mark Lewis Jones). Tall, forbidding, and dangerous, we soon learn he’s not to be crossed, even by the meek Doctor Wren (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith); if he treats his subordinates badly, how do you think he’ll treat women who won’t give into his demands?
Gwen makes it obvious fairly early on that Mr. Wynne might be behind the calamitous events affecting Elen and her two daughters. But McGregor drops in possible hints – Elen’s sudden illness, potential signs of witchcraft in the form of hearts nailed to doors and burned skeletons, Gwen getting spooked by a monstrous vision – which lend credence to the supernatural. It lurks in the backs of our minds while viewing the film, making us anticipate a large reveal of something possibly Lovecraftian in nature.
However, the real horror lies in man’s inhumanity to man. We’re told Elen’s husband is fighting a war somewhere, and Mr. Wynne – seemingly the owner of an expanding business – is taking advantage of this fact, pressuring Elen to sell the farm and leave. Gwen is shunned during the local market day, unable to sell any of her family’s vegetables. The family’s role in the community seems to be the local cautionary tale, but we’re not quite privy to that tale due to McGregor’s script, which only sticks to the essentials. Any and all backstory – save for that of Gwen’s father – which does not apply to current events is dispensed with, putting us directly in the here, now, and immediate.
The filmmaking is sparse, as superficial adornments are largely eschewed in favor of Adam Etherington’s gorgeous and bleak cinematography and the actors setting and selling the mood. James Edward Barker is credited with the film’s score, but there are no large passages of sweeping grandeur or screeching violins amplifying the film’s drama. Instead, we’re sunk into the quiet of the countryside, the only sounds being the wind and weather as it hammers the farm. Barker’s score consists more of tonal pulses and single-note motifs, stationed low in the film’s sound mix to serve a more ambient, unsettling purpose.
The only two credited actors at the head of the film thrust us relentlessly into this life-altering chapter of their story. Maxine Peake is pitch-perfect as the family matriarch, harried and distraught, barely finding the strength to keep going after events turn dark. The Job-like shift from happiness (seen in dream sequence-like flashbacks) to seeing her life wasting away is so palpable and thick that when an unexpected smile breaks through, we hardly know how to react. As the titular Gwen, Eleanor Worthington-Cox puts us through the paces of a young girl slowly losing her innocence as her eyes are opened to the evil that men do. It’s an unbelievably nuanced performance, displaying the widely appropriate range of a girl tormented by specters, illness, and death.
The talents of Peake and Worthington-Cox shine through thanks to McGregor’s choice to stay away from spectacle. We’re fully sunk into their plight with few opportunities to throw any of our attention to outside characters. He keeps us rooted in the emotional, mental, and physical stakes of the family’s struggle, wearing us down by film’s end. Gwen is a haunting film bolstered by low-key, outstanding work on both sides of the camera. It’s a quick little hit of the horrors of isolated farm life, reveling in its quiet tones and waiting for the fury bubbling at the edge of the frame to come exploding into view.