When I finished watching William McGregor’s Gwen (2018), I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it. Fast-forward a few weeks later and I have a somewhat clearer image of both the filmmaker’s intentions and my thoughts on how Gwen fits into the horror genre.
Gwen meshes real and imagined terror in a way that resembles The Babadook (2014), though there’s little evidence of a mythical boogeyman in Gwen’s story. Instead, William McGregor takes the existential threat of losing one’s livelihood and mixes it seamlessly with the fear of submitting to an unstable caretaker.
Gwen (2018) Plot Overview
The film begins with Gwen (Eleanor Worthington Cox), a teenage girl living in North Wales sometime in the 19th or early 20th century, escorting her sister back to their family’s farmhouse. The pair pass a group of men carrying deceased cholera victims out of a neighboring home. Gwen’s frustrated mother, Elen (Maxine Peake), chastises Gwen for returning late and burning supper. That same night, Gwen hears something outside but is unable to see or hear anything through the wind and raging storm.
The following morning, the family attends church, only to return and discover an animal’s heart nailed to the door of their small farmhouse. Elen throws the heart into the fireplace. The next day, Gwen awakens to find her mother standing outside among the corpses of their dead livestock and withered crops. It is later revealed that the same thing happened to their deceased neighbors just a few days prior.
As Gwen struggles to figure out what is going on, Elen begins to have violent seizures and psychotic breakdowns. During one such occurrence, Gwen finds Elen trying to cut open her arm with a piece of glass. Gwen seeks medicine from the town doctor but is unable to pay him due to the family’s financial struggles. The doctor shows pity on Gwen and gives her medicine with the agreement the money must be paid back promptly.
Meanwhile, a group of local businessmen plan to force Elen and her family out of their farmhouse in order to profit off of the local quarry near their property. As the family’s troubles mount, Gwen is haunted by the feeling that something evil is conspiring to break her mother’s will and destroy their family.
Gwen Film Analysis
Horror fans will likely finish the film scratching their heads or feeling somehow shortchanged. This slow-burning horror asks lots of questions and answers very few, giving the audience plenty of room to figure out exactly what happened on their own. If you’re looking for a film with plenty of scares, this isn’t the one for you. Gwen slowly builds tension, with each new revelation pointing to malevolent, even demonic forces at work.
Even if you completely exclude the “curse” or “evil spirit” theory that naturally underpins the story, Gwen still works quite well as a spooky family drama. Gwen’s father is absent from the film, presumably drafted into the war that has deprived the village of most of its young men. This leaves the children to rely on Elen, a bitter and overworked woman just trying to do her best under difficult circumstances.
However, from the perspective of Gwen and her younger sister, Elen is a horrifying caretaker. She takes out her frustration on Gwen in particular, berating her for every tiny misstep. When she’s not belittling her eldest daughter, spouting religious zealotry, or lashing out violently, she’s convulsing on the floor, as if possessed by the devil. You want to feel sorry for Elen, but can’t help but fear her just as the girls do.
That said, Maxine Peake’s excellent performance as the frightening mother figure is not enough to make the film “horrific” in the traditional sense. It is structured like a horror film, there are even horrific scenes that might make some viewers jump, but it moves far too slowly and reveals too little to be all that effective.
All in all, Gwen 2018 is a very well-made and well-acted film. The shots of a grey, barren countryside underscore the family’s existential plight. The tiny farmhouse — the family’s one remaining hope for survival — is more suffocating than liberating. The story builds tension effectively, but the limited dialogue and lack of clear answers can make it drag along at a snail’s pace.
You’ll likely be searching for “Gwen movie explained” type reviews, but you’re unlikely to find any of substance. In the end, Gwen leaves it to the audience to answer the film’s many questions. Nonetheless, Gwen is an excellent film that works as both a “mild” horror film and a tense family drama.
Rating: ★★★½ out of 5
If you’d like to watch Gwen (2018), it is currently available to stream via Shudder or Amazon Prime.
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