In “Gwen,” first-time director William McGregor’s turns the scenic countryside of North Wales into something unsettling in its lush desolation.
An omnipresent fog encloses the land around the film’s eponymous teenage heroine, an aesthetic reminder of her family’s isolation and lack of agency. Something sinister is amiss in 1855 Snowdonia, and Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), a teen alone with her ill mother and younger sister, is nearly powerless against it.
“Gwen” is a fine work of slow-burn period horror, all moods and tones. Through a naturalistic performance by Worthington-Cox, Gwen becomes a vessel for pity and then a creeping unease. The vast landscape of Wales seems more like a coffin as this family finds itself crushed by forces beyond its understanding.
Set during the Industrial Revolution, the story follows Gwen as her already brittle world begins to fall apart. Scraping out a meager living on a farm and waiting for the return of a father we sense won’t be coming back, things go from bad to worse.
Gwen’s distant, sickly mother Elen (Maxine Peake) struggles to contain her poor health and keep the farm afloat, bitterly rejecting demands from a mining company to sell the family’s land.
Misfortune befalls the family in increasingly devastating ways, beginning with spoiled potatoes and onto the killing of their sheep. Minor assistance from a sympathetic local doctor (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) is all the help they receive.
It’s not enough. The few nearby townsfolk shun them for reasons hinted at but unexplained.
FAST FACT: Actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith earned an Olivier Award for his performance as Ike Turner in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.”
The film brings the foreboding doom and paranoia to a simmer that it maintains until the violent conclusion.
There’s an ambiguity to the action that suggests they’re partially the result of evil machinations as well as just plain misfortune. Worthington-Cox and Peake render their characters with a weariness that’s frightened and exhausted, respectively. That gives “Gwen” a dramatic heft the script doesn’t always achieve on its own.
McGregor relies a bit too heavily on mood alone to generate tension, leaving large pieces of the story shrouded in fog as thick as the one that blankets the Welsh landscape. A few teased threads, such as Gwen’s relationship with a local boy and the fate of the family patriarch, are introduced but frustratingly unresolved.
The slow-burn does burn a little too slow, as “Gwen” drags some even at a lean 84 minutes. But the tension is there, that winding sense of dread that things won’t be OK. “Gwen” frightens in its recognition that sometimes we’re powerless in the face of an approaching fog that obscures and extinguishes any light of hope.
James Frazier is an Iowa-based film critic and digital marketer. You can find more of his film writing at Letterboxd.