- Anna Smith
- 15 July 2019
Debut director William McGregor and stalwart star Maxine Peake impress with an unnerving folk tale
Gwen begins with two sisters snatching a happy moment by the sea, but the ominous sounds of the crashing waves and howling wind are about to give way to the tangible terror of dead bodies: their neighbours are being wheeled away, victims of cholera. Soon the older girl, Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox from TV's Britannia), is hearing creepy noises outside the remote Welsh home she shares with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and younger sister.
What is the nature of the threat, and is there just the one? This 19th century-set tale takes its time building a seriously eerie atmosphere loaded with credible period detail, with character development and drip-fed backstory just as crucial as scares and revelations.
The performances are key: Worthington-Cox puts in a very natural, engaging turn, while Peake is bewitchingly intense as the miserable mother attempting to defend her farmland from local developers. Her tortured grimaces and haunted looks are enhanced by classic pagan horror lighting: candles, windows, reflections, keyholes all play a part, as does the sound – this is worth seeing in the cinema for that alone. Other roles are filled creatively: Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as the local doctor, in the employ of ruthless landowner Mr Wynne (Mark Lewis Jones). No scene between any of the characters is wasted; each exchange has plenty to say about power, wealth and the double disadvantage of being both female and poor during the industrial revolution.
Is Gwen a horror? Perhaps – it's certainly deeply unsettling, with disturbing, shocking moments. It's also got shades of folk horror and an increasingly strong feminist slant, as its leads endure almost more than it's possible to bear watching. As you may have gathered, the approach is more arthouse than mainstream, but it is an impressive debut for writer-director William McGregor.
Limited release from Fri 19 Jul.