Beautifully shot and unrelentingly gloomy, Gwen is an impressive, if sparse, debut feature from writer-director William McGregor.
The film’s strengths come in the wonderfully evoked atmosphere, achieved through a combination of beautiful cinematography (fantastically shot by Adam Etherington), excellent performances and astute direction from McGregor. He constructs this gothic horror tale deftly, with an understated effectiveness that ensures it’s consistently chilling. The film transports you to the cold and starkly beautiful world of North Wales in the 19th century, where the landscape of Snowdonia forms an intimidating backdrop and contributes to the feeling of bleak hopelessness that it does such a good job of cultivating.
As previously mentioned, the performances are fantastic, especially those of Eleanor Worthington Cox as the titular Gwen, as well as Maxine Peake as her mother. Cox, in particular, is a revelation, achieving admirable levels of subtlety and nuance, and helping to create a character it’s very hard not to feel sorry for, as her life collapses around her. Peake has long since proven her acting ability and gives a typically strong performance too. Her performance emphasises the familial bond and its impact on the story, and when on-screen together Cox and Peake are magnetic.
The problem with the film is, for all of its atmosphere, it’s a little too sparse to be truly satisfying. The film comes in at around 80 minutes and it simmers without ever really kicking into gear. McGregor explores horror in an interesting way, utilising creeping nightmares and juxtaposing them with the cold, stark, unfriendly house that the family lives in very well, but while admirable, it doesn’t quite feel wholly complete.
Still, Gwen is definitely a promising debut, and a sign that there is much more to come from McGregor. He already has a veteran’s grasp on capturing and setting a mood and having the courage of his convictions to tell a grounded, grim story drenched in that atmosphere without feeling the need to compromise. It just lacks a narrative that matches up to the quality of the framework, meaning it’s a little less memorable than it could have been.
Dir: William McGregor
Scr: William McGregor
Cast: Eleanor Worthington Cox, Maxine Peake, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Richard Harrington
Prd: Hilary Bevan Jones
DoP: Adam Etherington
Music: James Edward Barker
Runtime: 84 mins
Gwen is released on DVD and Digital HD on 11th November.