Opening at Solon Cinemas this Friday is a little Welsh thriller with misplaced horror elements that'll be lucky to attract a handful of audience members during the full length of its run. It's called Gwen.
Gwen is directed by Brit William McGregor, known mostly for his work on TV – he'll be directing an episode of the upcoming His Dark Materials series on HBO – and who has a real fascination with landscapes. Gwen might as well have been funded by the Welsh tourism board, so thoroughly does McGregor capture the hilly countryside.
Gwen takes place during the early stages of the industrial revolution. Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox, who played Young Aurora in Maleficent) and her mother (Maxine Peak) and sister are trying to manage the family farm while a local quarry owner, Mr. Wynne (Mark Lewis Jones), attempts to buy, and then seize, the property by threat and force.
Most of the film, though, toys with the idea that Gwen's mother might be a witch or something. She wanders the grounds in a white nightgown, eyes vacant. She crushes the skulls of burned livestock and scatters the pieces near the front gate. Who can say what's going on here? The dialogue is as sparse as the character development, which are both as sparse as the muddy farmhouse, where Gwen and her sister do little but sing each other lullabies and listen to the weather. It's a bleak life.
We need not trash Gwen. It's a small-scale production early in a director's career that not many folks will see. The local Welsh community might even enjoy a night out in Solon and appreciate the scenic images. But it's worth noting that a compelling thriller does lurk beneath these lovely natural landscapes. If only the script had been interested in pursuing it!
In an opening scene, Gwen happens upon the bodies of a neighboring family. They have all died of cholera, supposedly. They occupied one of the few remaining farms in the area, and their property is soon taken over by Mr. Wynne. Gwen intuits, correctly, that her family will be targeted in the same way. A better film would have given Gwen the opportunity to investigate her suspicions. It would have given her an ally – perhaps the local doctor? Perhaps the son of a quarry thug, to whom she takes a shine? Perhaps her little sister? It might even have empowered her to fight back in some way. Expose the scandal? Kill the kingpin?
Instead, Gwen just gets to deal with her sickly mother, who does weird stuff like slice her forearms to "let the sin out."
This is not a horror film, but you wouldn't know it from the atmosphere. Even the promotional materials call it a "dark folktale." A what? This is a moody, muddy historical drama with some truly bush-league animal husbandry. Despite the fog and the nightmares, the real horror of Gwen is the powerlessness of women to take on a local moneyed enterprise. It should have been more Erin Brockovich and less The Witch.