Roles in Retrospect #4: IWD 2022 – Maxine Peake and ‘Gwen’ (2018) and Kirsten Dunst and ‘Melancholia’ (2011)

Over the past few months, this column has been an opportunity for me to highlight a handful of actresses whose earlier work I feel deserves more recognition. That’s why in honour of International Women’s Day 2022, I’m turning things over to a few of the wonderful members of team Flip Screen this month to give them the chance to do the same! In this special edition of Roles in Retrospect, Sharmane Tan reflects on Maxine Peake and her performance in the 2018 film Gwen, while Ceridwen Millington looks back at Kristen Dunst’s role in 2011’s Melancholia.

Maxine Peake and Gwen (2018)

For this month’s edition of Roles in Retrospect, we are doing a special feature for International Women’s Day! I am guest writing for Hayley’s wonderful column, and I have chosen to write about Northern English actress Maxine Peake. I first came across Peake while watching BBC One’s legal drama, Silk (2011-2014), where she played Martha Costello, a fiercely empathetic silk barrister whose faith in the justice system was gradually wearing out. I was taken by Peake’s sensitive portrayal of a brilliant woman who genuinely wanted to make a difference and do good in this world. In the series, Costello ultimately realises that her work—even the good cases—is steeped in moral rot, and Peake plays this epiphany with a heartbreaking intensity. The series (spoilers!) concludes with Costello’s otherworldly and sudden disappearance. Before vanishing, she stands before a bridge and throws a cryptic glance at her friends—a look that is marred with extreme regret for what she has done, and a slight hope that she was going to do good somewhere else. I have been sold on Peake ever since.

Maxine Peake as Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre. She is backdropped by a black background and is wearing a murky green coat. She has a pixie cut. In this image, she is pointing a gun with her right hand.
Image courtesy of Royal Exchange Theatre

Peake has a track record of playing difficult and complicated middle-aged women on-screen, and I thought spotlighting her career was fitting for a feature on International Women’s Day. Years before Suranne Jones charmed lesbians with her role as Anne Lister in Sally Wainwright’s lesbian period television drama, Gentleman Jack, (2019-present), Peake played Lister in James Kent’s lesser known film adaptation of Lister’s diaries, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010). Jones’ Lister had a magnanimous love for life, but Peake’s Lister was haunted by the fear of loneliness, a version which personally spoke to me. I first encountered Peake’s version of Lister before Jones’ role in Gentleman Jack, and I still think about how Peake imbued Lister with a deep sadness that is intimately recognisable to most lesbians, even up to the present. 

Peake’s other queer role was in Desiree Akhavan’s comedy-drama, The Bisexual (2018), where she played a lesbian artist involved in a tumultuous relationship with a woman (Akhavan’s character) who realized that she may be bisexual. On top of her television and film credits, Peake has also starred as the titular character in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s adaptation of Hamlet in 2015. Peake’s androgynous take on Hamlet, as Susannah Clapp writes, was played with “delicate ferocity” — a phrase I would use to describe all the enticing roles she has taken on thus far. As Mark Lawson notes in his stunning profile of Peake in The Guardian, her courageous acting choices, as well as activist work, contribute to a portrait of a woman who is “bold, versatile, and fiercely democratic.”

Maxine Peake as Elen in the film titled Gwen. She is wearing a dark green cloak and looks anxious. She is backdropped by bare land.
Image courtesy of AMC Networks

In this month’s column, I am focusing on Peake’s performance in William McGregor’s debut feature, Gwen (2018), a Welsh period horror drama. I stumbled upon this film when a publication that I was previously writing for covered it for Shudder’s distribution of the film. As a fan of Peake’s work, I watched it without hesitation. The film first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018, and has received a modest amount of praise for its success as a hybridized genre film that blends gothic horror with social realism to deliver a commentary on patriarchal capitalism. Set in Snowdonia during the Industrial Revolution in 1855, Gwen follows the titular character Gwen (Eleanor Washington-Cox) and her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) as they struggle to hold onto their barren farm as slater miners are intent on evicting them and using their homestead to expand their coal operations. Elen’s husband is supposedly away at war, but the film implies that this is a lie Elen tells Gwen, who still hopes for his return. 

Elen soon becomes beset with various mystery illnesses that eerily mirror the destitute state of their farm: their vegetables decay and sheep drop dead, as if reminding peasantry women that it is time to move on. Like the dying land she lives on, Elen is no longer useful to the capitalist endeavour and hence, is slowly afflicted with a degenerating disease that reminds her that her time—the traditional ways of living and cultivating farm life—is up. Elen is often harsh towards her naive daughter, who cannot understand why injured horses must be killed to feed the family or why they shouldn’t just sell their farm to slate miners. Peake’s intricate performance, however, imbues Elen with a stubbornness that is admirably heartbreaking. The resistance of the working class against the viciousness of capitalism’s rising dominance is seen in the way Elen tenderly washes her children’s hair, and protects her daughters from the cruelty of slate miners. The lie she tells Gwen about her father is conveyed with a mournful ache by Peake, who allows Elen’s desire for Gwen to have hope — even if it is false — to shine. 

Through Peake’s performance, audiences realise that the horror in McGregor’s film lies in the brutal injustice that befalls poor women and families, who are deemed worthless to men and their profitable pursuits. Keeping up with Peake’s projects has introduced me to a world of female characters who are uncompromising and honest about who they are, and I hope I have made you interested in following her work too. 

Kirsten Dunst and Melancholia (2011)

Kirsten Dunst is undoubtedly one of the great actors of today, even if many people still see her as Spider-Man‘s (2002) Mary Jane Watson. Her career had been going for several years before that big break, though, with her first major role being as a precocious child bloodsucker in Interview with the Vampire (1994). Being a child star, with all the pageantry and idolisation that involves, set her up to be the idealised girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson: the morally correct, intelligent, and beautiful target of Peter Parker’s affections. It took getting the lead role in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) for the full extent of her skills to get their deserved big screen outing. Von Trier has provided spaces for many female actors to let loose and show rich, career-altering performances. The role of Justine that Dunst takes on undoubtedly would have been challenging to write down or act out, as it necessitates a dive into the complexities of severe depression. However, the result is a performance both authentic and insightful, and impossible to imagine being better suited to anyone else.

A stony-faced Justine lies amidst the flora of a pond, wearing her wedding dress and clutching a bouquet of flowers
Image Courtesy of Zentropa Entertainments

It’s well-known that Melancholia provides tremendous insight into mental health — as contributor Jennifer Maxwell has explored — but it’s Dunst who grounds the story with exceptionally nuanced acting. Justine is getting married early in the movie, and whilst the occasion is usually joyous, it soon becomes clear that the day’s weight is too much for her. Bitterness from family members, betrayal by people close to her, and the weight of expectation and tradition all worsen Justine’s struggling mental health. The signs of the character’s fragmentation are subtle and knotted, and Dunst shows with angst-inducing precision someone who is constantly exhausted by applying a positive facade. This positivity is gradually chipped away at until Justine becomes clearly severely depressed in the film’s second half, and by its end she displays a distinct scorn for society’s empty traditions and lack of empathy. This vast journey through her mental health avoids histrionics for a consistent plausibility that is often upsetting because of how honest and realistic it is. The fact that Dunst has acted with the likes of John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård, and Charlotte Rampling but still dominated the screen proves that she is a master at her craft. More audiences need the chance to see her skills at their height, and to realise that Spider-Man was merely a stepping stone to much greater roles.