If you’ve ever read anything by Thomas Hardy, you’ll readily recognize the setting of William McGregor’s Gwen. Most of the film’s action takes place amid a majestic yet eerily impersonal mountain landscape in Wales. The one town we see is desolate and grimy, and its inhabitants are the kind of people who’d take pleasure in spreading rumors about you behind your back.
It’s in this dispiriting environment that we meet Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), a teenage girl who lives with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and sister Mari (Jodie Innes) on a farm. Ever since Gwen’s father (Dyfrig Evans) went off to fight in the Crimean War, life has been bleak. His absence has not only left the three women feeling rather depressed, but they could also use his help around the farm.
The women’s situation only worsens, moreover, when they’re beset by a series of mysterious and creepy calamities. The crops they plant all die off. Something or someone kills off their entire flock of sheep in one night. Perhaps most disturbingly, Elen abruptly falls ill: she begins to suffer debilitating seizures, and at one point, Gwen catches her cutting herself.
If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because Gwen is quite similar to The Witch, Robert Eggers’ folk horror hit about a Puritan family in New England. Both films depict rural families who’re assailed by seemingly supernatural forces, and they also both see horror as a metaphorical tool for examining societal problems. The similarities between the two films even carry over into their styles, seeing as they both feature long takes, gradual camera movements, and persistently dark lighting.
What eventually sets these two films apart from one another, however, is the clarity of their respective themes. In The Witch, it was always clear what its horror elements were critiquing. Through dialogue and well-placed point-of-view shots, the film examined traditional attitudes towards sex, suggesting that men concocted the concept of witchcraft to suppress the “threat” of uninhibited sexuality.
In Gwen, meanwhile, McGregor repeatedly hints that the protagonists’ misfortunes are symptomatic of larger societal ills. Intermittently, there are dream sequences in which Gwen’s father limps towards the camera in a tattered red uniform, all while cannons boom in the background. At other times, Gwen and Elen are shown attending church, where they listen to sermons about the “dark evil” in the earthly world. And we also learn that there’s a greedy businessman who wants to buy Elen’s farm and mine the land underneath it.
In moments like these, McGregor gestures towards critiques of British expansionism, Christianity, and capitalism. But what’s frustrating is that the film never expands on these critiques: instead, it dedicates the bulk of its time to atmospherically depicting Gwen’s dreary life on the farm. Partially as a result of this, the whole film feels curiously incomplete, a would-be work of social commentary that makes little effort to ground its narrative in any kind of social, political, or historical context.
In making these criticisms, I don’t want to dismiss the many things that Gwen does well. Worthington-Cox easily holds your attention, and as mentioned, McGregor creates a very evocative atmosphere, one in which a constant, indescribable dread hangs over everything the characters do. What you find yourself wanting, however, is some sign of what this evocative atmosphere is ultimately meant to illustrate. It might be a cliché to put it like this, but Gwen is a film that invariably values style over substance.