Gwen (William McGregor, 2018) 2½ out of 4 stars.
On Halloween night in 2016 my friends and I sat around, crowded in my college dorm room, to watch a horror movie … what else would one do on Halloween night? I was convinced I selected a real jaw-dropper, heart-stopper … The Witch. As my friends might tell you, I was wrong. About an hour or so into the film everyone in the room was restless, bored, and impatient. No significant scares had happened yet, nothing had jumped out to the tune of an abrasive, loud sound, and no one was on the edge of their seat. Except for me. While I wasn’t shaking in my boots, I was intrigued by this atmospheric, slow-burn style horror film which had great performances, cinematography, and an overall feeling of dread and hopelessness. My friends eventually decided that this movie was “boring” and we went on a late-night hike, instead. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about The Witch. I decided to rewatch the film the next night in its entirety, and while it’s nowhere close to being one of my favorite horror films, I appreciated it for what it was, its great atmosphere, and for being different than some of the recent horror films I had seen that substitute an engaging story for cheap jump scares. I felt a similar way about Gwen.
Set in the rural hills of Wales during the industrial revolution, this William McGregor (Starz’s The Missing) thriller follows its titular character, portrayed by Eleanor Worthington-Cox (Maleficent), along with Mari, her younger sister, and mother Elen as they struggle to keep their farm – the only farm left in the area – afloat in the absence of Gwen’s father who is off at war. Soon, a strange illness falls on Gwen’s mother, bizarre incidents occur, and a mining company applies pressure to her family to sell the farm. Between her stern and cold mother’s constant belittling and persistent denial of her condition, unfortunate circumstances around the farm, and the aggressive mining company’s demands, can Gwen keep it all together?
Similarly to The Witch, the cinematography of this film is gorgeous and it uses the location to its benefit. The mountains and hills of Wales are misty and fog-covered, giving great atmospheric tension by the scenery, alone. The feeling of isolation is wonderfully illustrated by this backdrop, as is, surprisingly, a feeling of claustrophobia. Even in the huge, wide-open farm we are given this sense of claustrophobia since there is nothing around for miles and the characters spend most of their time inside their farmhouse.
The performances are decent all around. Worthington-Cox is fine as Gwen and newcomer Jodie Innes is serviceable as her sister Mari. However, the most notable performance is that of Maxine Peake (The Theory of Everything) as Gwen’s mother Elen. Strict, short-tempered, and decaying, Elen is by far the most unsettling aspect of the film and the one that provides the most tension-filled moments. The few scenes I can deem actually scary center around Elen. Peake’s performance is unnerving, upsetting, and at times downright sad. I won’t put her in the same league as some of horror’s other disturbing mother figures such as Margaret White in both Carrie films or Toni Collette’s horrifying performance as Annie in Hereditary, but it’s a similar performance along the same wavelength and is still notable in its own right.
Gwen’s atmospheric tension is mixed well with tension inside the family and tension with the townspeople. However, it is definitely a slow-burn and there are parts that did seem to drag. Still, I found myself overall invested in the story and the terrible things happening to this poor family. At times, it seemed like nothing could get worse, and that’s the strength of Gwen: showing a family at its worst go through some terrible things. If you’re looking for a horror movie loaded with scares and thrilling, intense, jaw-dropping moments you won’t get it with Gwen, as is the same case with The Witch. I don’t think Gwen is as intense, dreadful, or somber as The Witch and it certainly doesn’t have the same payoff at the end, with Gwen’s ending being a bit too abrupt and out of left field. However, I still think Gwen is worth a watch as a film that showcases an interesting, unique, devastating tale of a family going through the worst of times to try to maintain their way of life.