William McGregor’s feature debut Gwen is not your typical horror film. In fact it’s not really a horror film. What is terrifying about this film is its grey, trudging depiction of the harsh reality of life in the Welsh countryside of Snowdonia at the turn of the nineteenth century. Eleanor Worthington-Cox plays Gwen, a teenage girl whose father is away fighting in the army, struggling alongside her severe, exhausted mother Elen (Maxine Peake) to look after her little sister and prevent their small farm from falling into the hands of the local quarry owner, Mr Wynne.
This haunting social realist portrayal of this little family’s struggle against the ever-encroaching threat of industrial expansion and patriarchal violence (in the literal sense, the threat of sexual assault and violence seems to be hovering around every corner as McGregor populates the film with brooding, sinister men) is interspersed with nightmare hallucinations: Gwen’s absent father screaming in the fog of the woods; Elen made monstrous by the piercing white light of a terrible storm; the jutting rock of Gwen’s nightmares, which she runs round with her family only to find herself alone. Rather than causing the film to veer off into the fantastic or the supernatural, McGregor roots these nightmare visions to the worn paths and jutting rocks of the Welsh countryside. This interweaving of social realism and the uncanny is a feature of many successful contemporary horror films (for example Babak Anvari’s ‘Under the Shadow’ set in war-torn post-revolutionary Tehran), but at times the film’s supernatural elements seem a little forced (how can we make the mother-figure monstrous? Make her a zombie!).
What makes Gwen an effective horror film then, is not a fear of the monstrous-mother, or the creature in the mists, it is McGregor’s damning documentation of failing rural life at the end of nineteenth century, of the never-ending labour required of these women required to survive on the last farmstead in the valley. If Elen does appear monstrous, it is a monstrosity produced by the toll her husband’s absence, Mr Wynne’s unwanted advances and her epileptic fits take on her mind and body.
The horrors of Gwen are made most real by the way in which the slowness of narrative actions are reinforced by the slowness of the film’s cinematic pace. The camera refuses to rush, to turn away as it documents the sluggish progress of Gwen and her mother as they struggle to drag their dull petticoats across the bleak, hilly landscape (to church, where Elen has a fit, or to market, where Gwen is shunned by the local villagers in fear of Mr Wynne). The film’s moments of spectacular violence are sparse, made stark against the quiet dread of everyday life on the farm. There are moments of boredom on the part of the characters and the viewer, moments which threaten to derail the pathos we feel for the family; there’s a sense of relief when the next act of violence takes place (at least something has happened). Ultimately though, these long, unbearable silences function to enhance rather than detract from the creeping dread that Gwen cultivates over its 86-minute runtime (it feels much longer). The slowness of Gwen and Elen’s lives is, to a modern audience, both terrifying and enviable – the narrative’s sluggish trajectory emblematic of a lost time before the relentless pace of capitalist industrialisation and the rigid constraints of the working day.
If you’re looking for a Blumhouse horror filled with creepy dolls and a different scare every other scene then Gwen might not be for you. But if you’re willing to be patient, the final moments of the film’s climax burn so brightly after the grey trudge of the previous eighty minutes that they produce such a final, disturbing sense of abject desolation that it’s worth sticking around for.
Also, did I mention Maxine Peake is in it?