Big spoilers in this review!
Gwen is a 2018 release written and directed by William McGregor, set in 19th century Snowdonia, Wales. Touted as a “folk horror” on Shudder, the film focuses on a small family of three, and specifically the movie’s namesake, Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) as she tries to hold her family together after it begins falling to pieces.
The family travelling to church.
Off the bat, the foggy, dreary little setting of Wales feels like a perfect place to set a horror movie; at some points in the film, it’s impossible to see a couple feet from your face, because the fog is so thick, and in scenes set in the house late at night, it’s almost claustrophobic. The only light source is a weak little candle, in a place filled with shadows. Gwen is terrific in an atmospheric sense and has the viewer looking over their shoulder at all times, unable to shake the creeping suspicion that something—or someone—is watching. With that being said, I believe the atmosphere of the film is definitely the most frightening part of it.
Gwen’s mother, Elen (Maxine Peak) begins to experience terrible convulsing fits one night, and after this event, her health begins to decline rapidly. Early on in the film, Elen forces herself to get up and take the mile-long trek to church, only to fall into convulsive fits shortly after; by the second to the early third act, she’s so ill that she collapses on the way there, unable to even make the journey anymore. Gwen finds her mother bloodletting and partaking in other strange behaviors.
Besides her mother’s behavior, a peculiar series of events befalls their small farm. They come home from church to find an animal heart posted like some effigy on their door; Gwen and Elen awake one day and find all of their sheep slaughtered viciously; and the mysterious, wealthy Mr. Wynne (Mark Lewis Jones) keeps trying to pressure Elen into selling the farm.
Of course, while this is happening the family is still forced to make ends meet, and the responsibilities suddenly fall on young Gwen’s shoulders; she begins the film by burning the family dinner, and she ends it by de-feathering and cooking a chicken for the family to eat. It is she who runs up debt from Doctor Wren (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) for medicine after her mother falls ill, and it is Gwen who must sell the family’s meager crops of vegetables at the market after her mother is unable to get out of bed.
Maxine Peak as Elen, the family matriarch and tragic character. She is haunted by the death of her husband and the misfortune befalling her family.
The poor girl tries her damndest to keep things rolling, while literally, every single force in the universe is working against her. The family’s options, sans an able-bodied working man, are wholly limited. At one point, it gets so desperate for the family that Doctor Wren suggests selling the farm, and for the women to take up work in the factories.
The main character, and film’s namesake, Gwen; selling her family’s meager harvest at the market.
Gwen starts out bleak and ends bleakly. It’s is a lonely, haunting tale of the sudden abrupt end of childhood and the sacrifices of parents and a tale that doesn’t ever seem to lighten up at any point. It’s a love letter to the death of childhood into the awfulness of womanhood, and in that aspect it’s interesting.
The movie begins with a carefree, childlike Gwen frolicking with her young sister, without a care in the world. Gwen eagerly awaits the return of her father with an unaware innocence regarding his prolonged absence.
In the first act, she is visibly frustrated when her unskilled method of food preparation ends up burning her family’s supper. In Gwen, we watch, breath held as misfortune causes a premature growth in the young woman and she is forced into a position she never asked for—as the new head of the household. There’s also an interesting dream sequence as things come to a head, in which Gwen is frolicking happily with her family, including her father, mother and young sister, and they all suddenly disappear.
She is left alone, terribly confused and on the verge of tears. Considering that she truly is alone in her journey—her sister is still too young to understand everything, her mother is suffering from some undisclosed mental illness and her father is gone, presumed dead—this seems like an interpretation of Gwen’s lonely road into adulthood.
Gwen laying next to her younger sister, Mari.
Likewise, the film also focuses—though not with as much emphasis—on the strained relationship between Gwen and her mother, Elen.
Elen is not introduced to us in the best light. She starts off by reprimanding her child after she accidentally ruins dinner, and throughout the film’s runtime, she partakes in some behaviors bordering on questionable to downright cruel. For example, on their way back from the market, Gwen’s horse spooks from a sudden clap of lightning, and in the commotion its foot breaks. Unable to help the animal, Elen orders a heartbroken, nearly-hysterical Gwen to slit its throat open and end its misery. She can’t do it (obviously) and Elen pins her down with a contemptuous, furious stare and does the deed herself. Later on, she nearly forces Gwen to cut up the body of her dead animal friend for food, out of fury.
Gwen, Elen and Mari (from left to right) sitting down to enjoy supper.
By no means am I excusing Elen’s behaviors toward her children. However, put in context by the film’s ending—in which (spoilers) we discover that a greedy businessman has killed and stolen the land of every other family in the valley, and Elen’s family is next—certain aspects of her character make a lot more sense.
For one, Elen is the only one in the family that knows the fate of her husband. She must go for an extended period of time hiding his death to protect the feelings of her girls. By withholding this information, Elen believed that she was protecting Gwen from the inevitable disappointment and hardship of life; until she falls ill, and Gwen picks up the slack.
Elen is well-aware of the men threatening to take her home, but to protect her kids, she cannot share these details. She is unable to shield them, however, from the terrible actions of Wynne and his men as they make her family’s life a living hell. Finally, Elen’s miserable efforts in protecting her children from the greed of men culminate in the final act, as Wynne breaks into her home, rapes Elen in front of her children and tries to choke Gwen after she charges at him.
Elen’s efforts aren’t in vain, however; she manages to slit Wynne’s throat, and tearfully proclaims her love for her children, before Wynne’s cohorts descent on the house and light Elen aflame. Like I said, this movie doesn’t ever give you a breather, and it hits even harder when things fall into place.
I’d consider The Witch to be one of my favorite horror movies of all time. The bleak atmosphere, the slow buildup—everything works in this movie’s favor to really drive home the final act, and there’s a lot of similar elements in both The Witch and Gwen. So, as something touted as ‘folklore horror’ online, I assumed that Gwen would sort-of devolve at some point into a supernatural, enemy. That did not happen.
Gwen is a melancholy tale of the price of human greed, and not of forest witches or malevolent spirits. With that being said, I’m kind of disappointed that I don’t much like this movie. And I believe it has a lot to do with the marketing of the film. On Shudder, the summary of the film concludes with “Somehow, Gwen must find the strength to guide her family through the darkness and overcome the evil that is taking grip of her home.” Doesn’t that suggest something more horrific than just a greedy man with a greedy couple of friends? On IMDB, the film’s genres are listed as Drama, History, Mystery, which I should’ve taken into account a bit earlier.
Gwen is more of a drama with horror elements, while the Witch is horror with dramatic elements; as a drama, I think Gwen holds its own. As a horror movie? I’m kind of surprised it can even be found on Shudder.
Gwen is unsettling, and it definitely has certain elements pulled directly from gothic and folklore horror, but…this is not a horror movie. It’s not. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that, but I’m disappointed that it’s been regarded as so. The film is a thriller/drama, not a horror/drama, and if that’s not your scene, you probably won’t like this film, and I think that’s why it wasn’t on my list of favorites. But, that doesn’t mean the film’s not worth a watch, especially if you’re a fan of folk drama or period pieces.