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William McGregor’s debut feature is an eerie hybrid of gothic drama and social realism. It comes on like a chilling mystery-horror in the tradition of The Innocents, as a string of calamities befall a woman and her two daughters fighting to keep their farm in 19th-century north Wales. Is some kind of ghostly phenomenon at work? Or, isolated and alone, are the women slowly going mad? McGregor adds a further layer of ambiguity with the possibility that this is a story about female oppression and the struggle of the poor.
Gwen is set in 1855 in Snowdonia, as slate mining pushes out farming as the predominant way of life. Eleanor Worthington-Cox (The Enfield Haunting) plays teenager Gwen whose father is away fighting in the army. Her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) is hard and angry, although her grief-filled glances at her daughters when they’re not looking hint that she hasn’t always been like this. One morning, the family wakes up to find their sheep have been slaughtered. Next, the horse is lamed. Worse, Elen has epilepsy. There is ugliness in the responses at chapel when she has a fit mid-sermon. A predatory smile dances across the face of a powerful local mine owner who has been eyeing up Elen’s land.
The wildness of Snowdonia is broodingly shot by McGregor (who directed episodes of Poldark) and cinematographer Adam Etherington; the elemental soundtrack of howling wind and whispering trees nicely contrasts with the sparse script. Gwen and Elen are grafters, more than up to the job of running the farm, but, without a man around, the mine owner feels emboldened to attack. This is not social realism in the style of Ken Loach, but it is a film with a strong sense of outrage. Some might find it relentlessly bleak.
• Gwen is released in the UK on 19 July.
Source: The Guardian
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