Writer/director William McGregor (His Dark Materials) takes viewers to the stark hills of Wales in Gwen, a dark folk tale built on dread.
It is the 19th century, and Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) lives with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and younger sister Mari (Joddie Innes) alone on a struggling farm. It seems the whole world is turning against her family as Elen succumbs to illness and a local mining company who wants their land successfully turns the local community against them.
Darkness creeps ever closer to the family and McGregor deftly captivates and works the emotions of his audience to keep them guessing if that darkness comes from humans or something even more insidious.
McGregor makes smart choices throughout the film. There is very little score to speak of, so we are left to the sounds of nature, and it isn’t long before creeping winds and crackling fires take on a sinister tone.
Worthington-Cox (The Enfield Haunting) is transcendent in the role of Gwen delivering a flawless performance that is tonally near-perfect throughout. The character is constantly pulled between childlike innocence, teenage stubbornness, and adult responsibilities, the last carrying with it a weighty burden as her mother becomes ill and she must try to keep the farm running on her own.
Likewise, Maxine Peake (Peterloo) radiates the quiet desperation of a mother trying to hold her family together. With the mining company constantly watching she cannot be seen as weak, no matter the circumstances, and we watch as she pricks her fingers in order to draw blood that she massage into her cheeks to give them a healthy glow and walking the great distance to attend church when she can barely stand.
Among the supporting cast, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith stands out as Doctor Wren, a man torn between his allegiances to the mining company and his oaths as a doctor when Gwen begs for medicine for her mother.
Unfortunately, other members of the supporting cast aren’t given much more to do than scowl and look threatening. While it works overall, at the very least the head of the mining company and perhaps the minister could have been given more development to underline why they do what they do.
And then there’s the Welsh countryside itself. There are times when the hills and countryside of sparsely populated filming location, Gwynned, seems to loom over the family and press in on them, underscoring their isolation.
As the elements come together, not only does McGregor manage to convey a nearly consuming sense of dread within his characters, but he pushes it beyond the screen onto his audience.
How can there be nothing to fear after all if we know that something or someone is moving inside the shadows and it will devour us if we allow it?
Gwen will release this Friday, August 16, 2019 in select theaters and video on demand, and it is definitely a film that fans of The Witch will want to see.