Gwen – Film Review
by Aisling Foster
Written and directed by William McGregor
North Wales in the late nineteenth century, a grim mountain landscape where a mother (Maxine Peake) and her two young daughters scratch out a living on a remote small holding and wait for their soldier man to return from the wars. Hope for his survival keeps them plodding about in the mud, but the omens look bad from the start, with dark skies thundering overhead and a first threat from the outside world appearing as an ox heart nailed to the door. Gwen, the eldest daughter (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) senses danger from beyond their fields. She sees her mother’s fear and tries to keep it from her sister, but even when their sheep are brutally slaughtered and a local family disappear in a trail of blood, she can extract no answers about who or what is threatening to destroy them all.
Their lonely hillside is certainly scary – and despite the camera’s occasional attempts to prettify the scene, makes a poor advertisement for subsistence farming. Yet as lightening strikes strange shapes out of the darkness, more animals die and potatoes begin to rot in the earth, it is unclear whether this is a horror movie or a sad piece of Welsh industrial history. In fact, as we eventually discover, the threat comes from the town, where exploitation of a rich seam of welsh slate under the family’s feet is a prize worth killing for. Clearly, Gwen’s mother has been refusing to give up her land for some time before this tale begins, but as the persecution continues, her unwillingness to utter anything except a few snarling commands keeps the viewer as bemused as her unfortunate children. Even when the truth emerges, the mother’s tight lipped fury means we get few insights into the past, nor any back-stories to explain her deep hatred of the town’s bullying mayor, or his ability to maintain the family’s social isolation.
Acting without much script feels like a cruelty to the actors, too. Allowed so very few lines, the excellent Maxine Peake strains every muscle to express her character’s condition. But her silences keeps her at a distance, more like a goaded animal than a free-thinking human being. Perhaps that was the director’s intention. One line (possibly the longest piece of dialogue in the whole piece): “Steal a sheep and they’ll take your hand, steal a mountain and they’ll make you a Lord” articulates this independent film’s message about the inexorable power of capitalism. Certainly, the position is hopeless. Like the ugly slag-heaps which will soon cover the green fields of Snowdonia, these poor farmers are the detritus of history. If only we could know them well enough to care.