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The hills are alive with the forces of evil in Gwen, a social-realist period drama with gothic horror overtones set in the bleakly beautiful mountains of Snowdonia in North Wales. Told through the eyes of its eponymous teenage heroine, British writer-director William McGregor’s debut feature is a competently made exercise in slow-burn tension and creeping dread. It features an arresting breakout performance by Eleanor Worthington-Cox and an agreeably prickly co-star turn by Maxine Peake, but it is marred by a flimsy narrative, which never delivers the dramatic depth or shock twists it seems to promise.
World premiering in Toronto this week, McGregor’s modestly scaled U.K. production will grab more festival play based on its genre-friendly appeal and on Peake’s growing screen profile. But theatrical prospects will be limited by a tonally unsure hybrid fable that makes overtures towards multiple genres without fully committing to any of them.
The setting is North Wales in the mid-19th century, at the sharp end of the Industrial Revolution, when ugly open-cast flint mines are starting to etch giant fissures into the rugged mountain landscape. Spirited teenager Gwen (Worthington-Cox) and her pre-teen sister Mari (Jodie Innes) share an austere stone farm cottage with their mother Elen (Maxine Peake), scraping a meager existence from the land as they await the return of their absent father, who has apparently gone off to war. A purgatorial outpost assailed by howling gales and icy blizzards, this modest farmstead has an inescapably sinister aura, especially in the dead of night.
Elen is a stern, sickly disciplinarian who is struggling to conceal her worsening epilepsy from her daughters. Kindly local medic Doctor Wren (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) helps Gwen out with free medicine for her mother, but his ruthless paymasters at the local quarry are more interested in seizing her family’s land. Elen stands firm against their bullying tactics, insisting she plans to keep the home fires burning until her husband’s return. But as her condition deteriorates, malevolent forces converge on the farm, and lurking menace escalates into lethal violence.
McGregor sets up an alluring tangle of unanswered questions during the film’s first half, building eerie atmosphere from hushed whispers and cryptic clues, misty apparitions and uncanny dream sequences, all underscored by a near-constant sonic backdrop of ghostly groans and creepy rumbles. He remains teasingly ambiguous on whether this is a story about demonic possession, psychological breakdown or plain old capitalist greed. Is Elen performing occult blood-letting rituals in her bedroom, or self-harming due to some terrible guilty secret? Is Gwen, through whose adolescent eyes we filter these nightmarish events, even a reliable narrator?
Sadly, all these promising threads fail to bear fruit in the film’s latter half, when uncanny folk horror tips over into lurid, gothic, semi-coherent melodrama. McGregor hints at the tragic fate of Gwen’s missing father, but neglects to share the full facts with the viewer. An opaque connection between Gwen and a boy in the local village is fleetingly referenced but never explained. A clutch of background characters suddenly coalesce into a homicidal mob with implausible haste and ferocity. Ultimately, McGregor piles so much misfortune on his downtrodden heroines with so little dramatic justification, the net emotional effect is more numbing than moving. This grim, gritty little parable has already jumped the shark.
Topping a checklist of the film’s positive elements is Worthington-Cox, whose impressive range of anguished emotions should guarantee her a bright future in dark drama. Adam Etherington’s lensing is also strong, from the extra-terrestrial grandeur of the wintry Welsh peaks to the painterly intimacy of candlelit interiors. And McGregor is clearly a competent moodsmith, he just needs a more solidly constructed narrative on which to hang his stylistic skills.
Production companies: Endor Film, Bideford Productions, BFI, Ffilm Cymru Wales, Great Point Media
Director-screenwriter: William McGregor
Cast: Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Maxine Peake, Jodie Innes, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Richard Harrington
Producers: Tom Nash, Hilary Bevan Jones
Cinematographer: Adam Etherington
Editor: Mark Towns
Music: James Edward Barker
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
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