Gwen is a horror story, one which might be described as choosing horror over story, or style over substance, but whose style is so striking and effective it hardly matters. It establishes a mood of dread and suspense which slowly escalates and is sustained through the final moment, as is the story’s central mystery, the ambiguous source of the danger. It is the first feature film by writer/director William McGregor, a filmmaker with a gift for the macabre and fanciful, who has previously made only television episodes and short films, although his work has been much admired on the film-festival circuit and earned him multiple awards.
Set in the late nineteenth century in rural north-western Wales, the story is told mainly from the point of view of the title character. Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) is a girl of about seventeen, who lives with her mother, Elen (established stage, television, and film actress Maxine Peake) and younger sister Mari (novice child actress Jodie Innes) on a small farm in an isolated community. Their father is away at war, a situation which is frequently remarked upon as sad, but may also leave the women at home vulnerable, in some way not clearly identified at first. There is a gloomy and mysterious look and feel to both the narrow, dimly lit interiors, and the rugged, often overcast countryside, but the sense of danger is not associated with anything specific.
The opening scene is of two sisters playing on the rocky hills: Gwen and little Mari. The happy and innocent interaction is suddenly interrupted when they come across a house from which the corpses of two men, reportedly dead from cholera, are being removed. This is the first of a series of events that seem to settle on the town like curses, focusing on Gwen’s family in particular. That night, Gwen wakes in the middle of a severe storm, and thinks she hears someone outside. Concerned that a neighbour is somehow caught unsheltered in the thunderstorm, she opens the door, but finds nothing. Only after she returns to the house do we see a vaguely human shape pass by the house. Soon after, the family’s sheep, and then the sheep belonging to a neighbour, are killed. Crops are found rotten and unusable in their fields, possibly the result of vandalism. At church, the father of Gwen’s young admirer harshly prevents his son from smiling or looking at Gwen and her family, for no reason Gwen can fathom. As the mother and daughters return home from church, they find an animal heart nailed to their door.
Part of the success of these early scenes is that it does not reveal which horror conventions are being used. The straightforward, naturalistic depiction of local life, despite its sinister overtones, gives no clue. When a figure passes by the house, are we meant to suspect a ghost, an ordinary human prowler, a hallucination, or an entirely new form of threat? Is the danger worldly or supernatural? There are clues leading in both directions. There is also an ongoing suggestion that Gwen’s mother knows more than she is telling. Elen refuses to discuss these ghastly events with Gwen, only orders the animal heart, like the slaughtered sheep, to be burned at once. She also, without explanation, smashes the skull of one of her sheep and scatters the fragments at her front gate. She is distant and appears worried.
Just as the story seems to wander into supernatural territory, new problems develop that are all too human: the girls’ mother, Elen, is succumbing to an unidentified illness. She had been noticeably tired and pale already, pricking her finger and rubbing the blood on her cheeks before attending church, to give a false bloom of health; but now she succumbs to sudden attacks of convulsions. Elen tries to make light of the matter, and ignore her condition. Young Gwen is left to work out what is happening as best she can, but she is mystified. Why is so much disaster falling on their family, and one or two other local households? What is her mother so secretly and angrily discussing with the town elders after church? Why is Elen cutting her arm in a seemingly ritual manner? Who or what is wandering outside their cottage at night? She often dreams of happier times, when her father was still at home; and nearly as often, suffers from nightmares in which her mother behaves strangely, even threateningly.
When Gwen approaches the village doctor about her mother’s illness, he offers help rather reluctantly, making vague references to his being answerable to the town leaders, and to the quarry which is the area’s main employer. He offers some inadequate explanation of Elen’s cutting herself: a local superstition which uses the practice to purge sin. Gwen’s further discussion with the doctor offers a more simple and worldly explanation for their troubles, the idea that the quarry wants to force the sale of their land, but there are still unanswered questions. As Gwen’s fears and her ominous nightmares worsen, the threat escalates and begins to take shape, leading to a shocking and violent ending which appears to reveal the danger as purely temporal, just as it simultaneously suggests the true, mythical significance to the family’s mysterious persecution.
Gwen began as a 2009 short, also written and directed by William McGregor, an eighteen-minute film in a fairy-tale format, filmed in Slovenia and in the Slovenian language, whose plot has, superficially, very little similarity to Gwen. McGregor’s plans to expand and reimagine the essential concept resulted in Gwen, retaining the ominous, other-worldly look of the short film but adding a more complete storyline, and a well-constructed sense of tension and fear. It comes highly recommended for Halloween viewing.