Gwen – Review
In the stark beauty of 19th Century Snowdonia a young girl tries desperately to hold her home together. Struggling with her mother's mysterious illness, her father's absence and a ruthless mining company encroaching on their land. A growing darkness begins to take grip of her home, and the suspicious local community turns on Gwen and her family.
We are off to North Wales for our horror movie review today as we take a look at William McGregor’s Gwen from 2018. Gwen is a period folk horror set in the stunning mountain range of Snowdonia. I am born and bred in North Wales so it’s pretty neat to see a horror movie set in a fairly local place.
Believe it or not, this is another horror with a heavy drama based plot. If you have checked out any of my other reviews lately, you may see a theme. Most of my recent reviews have featured horror movies with a distinct drama leaning. I try to review the majority of horror movies I watch. I also like to focus on smaller, lower budget, movies. I’m not actually seeking out drama heavy horror movies. It’s just the way things have played out. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Gwen.
Written and directed by William McGregor and produced by Hilary Bevan Jones; Gwen is a period folk tale in the same vein as The Witch. It is going to be hard to ever review movies like Gwen without thinking about The Witch.
Whether you are a fan or not, The Witch has made a sizeable impact on horror cinema. Period folk horror is on the rise and The Witch’s moody, atmospheric, rural setting and brooding glacial pace make for a template that is easy to emulate. The scares can be subtle or even non-existent, the antagonist metaphorical or perhaps paranormal, and the setting itself can be choking and oppressive. Crafting a world that could be straight from a Grimms’ fairy tale; the location is an antagonist in its own right.
Gwen, however, is based on a short film by William McGregor from 2009 called “Who’s Afraid of the Water Sprite?”. The story, at least, predates The Witch by a number of years. Despite this, The Witch’s influence is clearly on display, as it is with Hagazussa and other similar recent movies.
The premise of the two films share a lot in common. A family outcast and ostracised by society struggling to cope against illness, poverty, and a wave of rumours. Of course, this was a reality for many families, women in particular, hundreds of years ago. It may actually be easier to describe Gwen as a period drama based on the realities of life between the 1600s and 1900s. Notice how I said drama there, not horror?
The Witch Lite – Gwen
The Witch Lite is the best way to describe Gwen. Gwen follows the story of the titular character Gwen, played by Eleanor Worthington-Cox, and her family. Apparently we are dropped in right as the shit is about to hit the fan. The neighbours have been found dead, supposedly due to cholera. There is an air of melancholy surrounding the village.
Gwen, her sister Mari and her mother Elen, played by Maxine Peake, head to church. Back in the 1800s, the church was the centre of the community. It was a place where people would connect, links would be formed, and business would be attended to. While there, the mother has a conversation with a man and is clearly left upset. The family, upon their return home, find an animal heart nailed to the door..
The next day the family wake up to find their crops spoiled. This is the start of a cascading series of events for the family. We follow along as Gwen, Mari, and Elen attempt to keep the farm afloat. A ruthless mining company wants the land the farm is on. Gwen is left to cope while also dealing with her mother’s seizures and illness. Elen’s increasingly bizarre behaviour hints at something potentially sinister. The suspicious villager’s begin to ostracise the family and things become more and more desperate.
That’s about as much as I can say about the movie without spoilers. It’s not as if there are things that would particularly ruin the plot. There aren’t any real twists and turns. It’s just, there isn’t a great deal going on in Gwen. It is very slow paced and spoiling anything would be taking away from the small amount there actually is.
Genuinely Not a Horror Movie
Gwen is potentially the least “horror” of the drama heavy horror movies I have reviewed lately. If tension, bleakness, and a foreboding atmosphere can qualify something as a horror movie, then Gwen is a horror movie. If actual scares, horror related themes, and a commitment to unsettling the viewer are necessary, then Gwen is clearly not a horror movie.
I feel like I am going over this point a lot lately. Too many movies are adding horror elements to expand their audience. There has been an explosion of drama based horror. It is so difficult to review. If the movie is good, you can barely recommend it on a horror site because it is not really horror. If it is terrible you are getting the worst of both worlds.
I think people who craft what would be an average drama believe they can transform it into a fantastic horror. That just isn’t the case. Some people will enjoy it, that’s for sure. Plenty of people genuinely enjoy slow burn drama with minor horror element.
The Other – Other Horror Fans
There is, also, another group of people who gravitate towards these types of films. These movies have a knack for making the viewer feel smart. This gives them a ready made audience of low IQ, arrogant, fart sniffers. These people are just gagging to claim they “get it” and you must be too stupid to appreciate it. They gleefully sneer and point out the metaphors and analogies that the majority of us found too obvious to bother pointing out. You can usually find them in the review section of IMDB wondering why a movie has a low score with the general public.
The rest of us will either be disappointed at the average drama elements and predictable plot or bored to tears and feel cheated that we wasted our time.
Gwen falls firmly into the category of slightly above average drama. Its slow pace, total aversion to being an actual horror movie, predictability, and lack of intrigue make it a difficult movie to recommend to horror fans. It manages to stand out, however, for some of its fantastic acting performances and stunning cinematography. Even if the plot doesn’t grab you, the scenery, atmosphere, and acting might.
Gwen is Extremely Dark
If you plan on watching Gwen, I would suggest you grab a fun movie to watch after or even before. Perhaps watch it after watching Happy Death Day. Gwen is a relentlessly bleak movie. It’s slow pace, dreary atmosphere, and depressing story will likely leave you feeling somewhat drained and, maybe even, a little unhappy.
Gwen makes no attempts at pleasing the viewer. Its misery and melancholy is the backbone of its story and it refuses to give it up even for a minute. We are dropped in right as the situation is escalating. The family have tragedy in their past and things are only going to get worse. Events escalate day by day and there isn’t a single minute where the atmosphere is anything other than hostile and oppressive.
This devotion to sadness and misery is, perhaps, Gwen’s biggest, and only, selling point as a horror movie. Some people love to indulge in the thick greyness of a depressing movie. Gwen offers this in spades. There are no compromises made for the sake of the viewer. This is something that could be appealing to certain viewers. Fans of classic horror such as The Wicker Man, Straw Dogs, and The Thing may enjoy Gwen’s “take no prisoners” approach to delivering gloom.
Bleak Horror Revival
A whole new wave of bleak horror has cropped up in recent years. Perhaps Gwen can capitalise on that factor alone. Hereditary, Midsommar, and Mother are just a few of the late 2010s movies leaving you feeling just slightly less depressed than you will be when you read November 2022’s energy statement (European readers know what I am talking about here).
Bleak horror movies are cyclical and the trend comes around every 10 years or so. Remember the mid 2000s? The Descent, Funny Games, The Mist, and The Road were just some of the movies making you reach for the SSRIs back then.
Perhaps Gwen fits this niche well enough to recommend as a horror? The constant foreboding atmosphere and some creepy imagery might be enough for some people. The fact remains, however, that most viewers are looking for a straight up horror movie. With this in mind, Gwen is hard to recommend. If you enjoy bleak, grey, and horribly depressing, maybe put Gwen on your watchlist.
A Beautifully Shot Movie
Gwen is an absolutely stunning movie to look at. William McGregor has crafted something wonderful. I actually had to come back and edit this section as I feel I originally understated it. While taking screenshots I was reminded about how incredible some of the scenes are. It is fantastic and was genuinely hard to pick just a few shots to feature in the review. Whether it is scenery or character closeups, Gwen is a beautiful film. I would almost recommend it based purely on that alone.
The gorgeous scenery of the Welsh hills sets the stage tremendously. The imposing greyness and fog present adds to the atmosphere. The location evidently traps the weather and the darkness of the night is utilised incredibly well. The shoot was apparently hampered by rain, fog, wind, and snow but it was clearly worth it as the scenery is the star of the film.
Cinematography is excellent. Both indoor and outdoor shots are framed with care and finesse. The director perfectly captures the moodiness of the environment and some of the night time shots are fantastic. Lighting is excellent, sets look authentic and the clothes are very fitting for the time period. If nothing else, Gwen is a hauntingly beautiful movie on par with, or better than, most other period folk horror.
Gwen Feels a Little Long
Despite feeling longer than it is, Gwen clocks in at 1 hour and 24 minutes. This is a decent run time and the story progression is paced just well enough to hold your attention. There aren’t any particularly boring moments of the movie and each scene seems to be setting up the next. There isn’t much in the way of padding which is a good thing.
The story is, however, quite predictable. You will likely figure the ending out way before you get to it. Obviously the story hints at paranormal explanations as well as rational to throw you off. This makes the movie feel a fair bit longer than it is as you end up waiting with baited breath for the pay off.
A Minor Nit-Pick
I didn’t recognise many of the Welsh accents as being from North Wales. This is a minor nit-pick that probably only a Welsh person would make but it was something I noticed.
I actually don’t have a traditional Welsh accent myself. Much of the North Wales coast doesn’t. I have a North East Wales coastal accent which is far closer to English. Almost nobody would identify my accent as being from Wales. This contrast when talking to people who do means I find regional Welsh accents stand out a fair bit. I can usually recognise a Welsh accent from the North East border compared with one 15 miles away. Most people from North Wales can. These sounded more like South Welsh accents to me.
I noticed the accent slipping a bit on some of the English actors, as well. I would have appreciated a Welsh cast for the main roles but the director is English. The Welshness of Gwen is more of a feature than a connection the creator has with Wales. It’s a nice setting and the accents set the movie apart from other similar period folk horror. I believe the short film Gwen was based on was not set in Wales.
Gwen’s Acting is Great Overall
Eleanor Worthington-Cox is exceptional. Tasked with carrying the whole movie on her back as the titular Gwen, she does a fantastic job. Eleanor is emotive and has some fantastic dramatic chops. She slips between playing affectionately with her little sister and screaming like a banshee seamlessly. A lesser actor would have dragged this movie down dramatically. Eleanor Worthington-Cox, without question, elevates it. I hope she goes on to have a fantastic career. She did a nice job with the accent, as well, only slipping a few times.
Additionally, Maxine Peake as Elen, Gwen’s Mother, is excellent. She is every bit the stern matriarch, hardened by a difficult life and an unforgiving environment. Once again, great job with the accent. Everyone else is somewhere between great and average. Eleanor Worthington-Cox takes so much of the focus that it is hard to stand out next to her.
A Controversial Opinion
People will likely hate me for saying this but the youngest daughter took me out of a number of scenes. She may come along fine and grow to be a fantastic actor and I hope she does. However, I couldn’t help but notice how distracted and disinterested she looked. Her reactions were almost never appropriate for the scene.
I feel like this is more down to the director. Child actors need direction more than anything and they need it more than anyone else on the set. Having a character, even if it is a child, smiling in sombre scenes is going to take the viewer out of the moment. It was almost as if she was performing at a school Christmas play as a sheep. I was expecting her to wave to her parents standing off screen in a few scenes. She was so disengaged and that is on the director for not directing her.
Truthfully, I wouldn’t have been able to hold my attention at her age either. I do totally get it but there are some incredible child actors around. Was this really the only casting choice? She doesn’t speak a lot which might be a plus. I am assuming she is not Welsh and couldn’t pick up the accent. It’s not a major thing but it does, at times, undermine the tone of the movie.
Is it a Knockout?
Gwen is a stunningly shot drama movie that masquerades as a horror. As a drama, it is somewhat compelling if not a little predictable. As a horror movie, Gwen is difficult to recommend. While it revels in a foreboding, oppressive atmosphere and features a few unsettling scenes, it is barely a horror movie.
There are no real scares, just a feeling of bleak hopelessness that the film holds onto throughout. While the story is fairly interesting, it is lacking in intrigue.
Gwen is really a period drama about a family struggling with poverty, illness, and the imposing presence of big business. Well acted and beautifully shot, the Snowdonia setting is the real star of the show. Eleanor Worthington-Cox is fantastic and some of the shots are stunning.
Fans of drama may enjoy the slow burn plot and fans of bleak horror may also want to check Gwen out. For fans of pure horror, you are likely to leave bored and unsatisfied at what is hardly a horror movie at all.