★ ★ ★ ★
“A brilliant gothic tale high up in the mountains of Snowdonia .”
Nowhere near enough filmmakers have made use of the Welsh geography for its psycho-geographic capabilities. Plenty of films have used the country as a stand-in for other locations – ever since the rebooted Doctor Who made Cardiff its production home back in 2005, its beaches, valleys and mountains have been increasingly used by big-budget productions as a spectacular backdrop. Snow White and the Huntsman, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, Dobby’s House in Harry Potter, Guy Ritchie’s lame King Arthur stab and bits of The Dark Knight Rises have all used Wales as a backdrop, but few ever use Wales for being Wales (unless you want to go back as far as cult classics like Human Traffic and Twin Town).
Recently though, we are seeing some stirrings of Welsh film waking up to its potential, thanks in part to the reasonably smart steps of Ffilm Cymru Wales, the national film agency. They’ve put their money into some solid films of late, and Gwen is possibly the best thing they’ve helped develop so far. Director/writer William McGregor, despite being from the flattest part of the UK (Norfolk) has built a brilliant gothic tale high up in the mountains of Snowdonia, wrapping the looming presence of the mountains into the psychology of his characters, which rises naturally out of the psychology imposed upon them by the landscape.
We follow the titular character (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), a farm girl in 18th century, living with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and little sister Mari (Jodie Innes). With father away at war, and slate quarrying increasing in the region, their farmstead is greedily eyed by rich industrialists – here portrayed by Welsh TV regulars Richard Harrington and Mark Lewis Jones. Elen herself falls ill – it’s not clear whether her maladies are supernatural or physical – the sympathetic Doctor Wren (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) is unable to help much without any pay.
The most obvious recent influence would easily be The VVitch (Robert Eggers) – both films are set in an isolated farmstead, with a various set of misfortunes befalling a family, both rooted in the landscape around them. For The Vvitch, it’s the sense of a new world and all its unknowns, turning to nothingness and horror. In Gwen, it’s the sense of the coming Industrial Revolution pummelling the landscape into submission in pursuit of capital. As a result, Gwen is ultimately a much more rooted story, its central conflict palpably ‘real’ as a single mother tries to fight back against forces that we know will win out eventually. It’s no coincidence that she’s fighting against masculine forces either.
Despite that comparison, Gwen’s not really a horror, though it is certainly drenched in gothic atmosphere; cinematographer Adam Etherington does a great job with the landscape – the soft evenness of overcast day, the ominous fog, the frankly freezing-looking rain and wind. Maxine Peake is stunning here, her performance finding this exact spot between earthly and motherlike; ethereal and unreal, as if the illness taking over her is dragging her inexorably to the underworld. Eleanor Worthington-Cox in the lead role is fairly solid too, but it’s one of the film’s few drawbacks that she doesn’t seem to quite get the balance right between the fear she’s subjected to and the responsibility she has to shoulder and project.
If the film were committed to being fully historically accurate of course, the main characters would have all spoken Welsh – English the language of the capitalist invader, imposing itself on the landscape; Snowdonia and the wider North-West region of Wales still has the highest percentage of Welsh first-language speakers. Gwen’s a bit more convincing than films where Americans speak with wobbly German accents, and there are sprinklings of Welsh throughout – a ‘diolch’ there, a ‘bore da’ here – and I wonder if at times, the film is guilty of being a bit of cultural and tonal mish-mash without achieving a full sense of completeness. But I digress – in Gwen you’ll find an atmospheric debut from a talented first-time filmmaker, rich in detail and thought.
Dir: William McGregor
Prod: Haley Bevan Jones
Cast: Maxine Peake, Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Mark Lewis Jones, Richard Harrington
Release Date: 2019