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When we first encounter the eponymous Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) she is on the cusp of an early, un-looked for adulthood. While still playing childhood games with her little sister, Mari (Jodie Innes), in the beautiful but foreboding Snowdonia valley, she is also scolded by her mother, Elen (Maxine Peake), for burning their meagre supper upon her return home.
Gwen has been compared to Robert Eggers’ 2015 period horror The Witch and there are certainly comparisons to be made: Gwen, like Thomasin, finds herself far out of her depth due to family responsibilities she should never have to shoulder. The Welsh countryside, like the New England one before it, reflects the uncaring environment found in both the stark wilderness and the jealous inhabitants of the nearby town. Differentiating it, however, is the fact that Gwen only ever skirts the paranormal. This is probably for the better, as the film very occasionally attempts sudden scares that don’t quite work within its wider context. Instead, overall thematically it is far more connected to last year’s Irish release, Lance Daly’s famine era Black 47. In Gwen, Irish audiences may well recognise a shameful history of greed and colonialism that is already repeating itself.
This is to say that, with Gwen, writer and director William McGregor is following the misfortune of a young individual who had the bad luck of being born into poverty in the British isles in the mid-nineteenth century. With Gwen’s father away at war the small matriarchal family must struggle away tirelessly on their isolated farm to make ends meet. With hardship following hard upon each hardship, Gwen’s place within the home as well as her family’s place in society becomes less and less certain. When Elen falls ill her misunderstood seizures alienate them from the local congregation. Even support from the village’s considerate doctor (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) cannot shield the family from the interest of the mining company who have designs on the nearby farms.
Between these devastating setbacks, the wonderful cast highlights the human cost of such actions. Worthington-Cox carefully plays Gwen as an over-burdened teenage girl with no outlet for her frustrations save screaming into the literal void: the loneliness surrounding their isolated cottage. Peake, meanwhile brings a wonderful pathos to Elen, whose every action is couched in double meaning, leaving the audience wondering whether she desires Gwen to be either a daughter or a surrogate mother.
And certainly Gwen may feel incredibly and at times unwatchable in its bleakness. Yet it is hard to feel its bleakness is unearned, demonstrating as it does how poverty is compounded in the face of unrelenting greed. Although on the face of it, Gwen’s turmoil may appear to originate in the natural world, with the film’s cold palate of green and brown hues reflecting an unforgiving rural environment, McGregor ultimately redirects our gaze towards the cruelties enacted in the name of the industrial revolution. Indeed, with the recent news revealing further horrors of the 2017 Grenfell Tower incident, Gwen‘s examination of the divide between wealth and poverty could scarcely be more apt. Devastating and thought-provoking, Gwen is as haunting as any story of the paranormal.