The past is a lot like Atlantic City. It’s a fine place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there, especially if your last name wasn’t Hearst or Bonaparte. If you were Joe Nobody, life was probably—to paraphrase Alvy Singer—a back-and-forth between the horrible and the miserable. Such is the case for the titular character of Gwen, written and directed by William McGregor.
“…puts a burden on Gwen, her mother, and her younger sister to maintain the farm…”
Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) lives in a small farm on the Welsh countryside, surrounded by picturesque hills blanketed by a lazy mist. It would be worth admiring every now and then if Gwen’s situation wasn’t so dire. With things as they are, the landscape takes on a different connotation—damp indifference would be the best way of putting it. Her father has been away for some time, and the chances of him returning grow smaller every day. With him away, it puts a burden on Gwen, her mother, and her younger sister to maintain the farm all by themselves, which includes chopping wood, cultivating the land, and fending off the locals who see the value of their real estate.
The threats of Man and Nature are both bearing down on the family at large, but it’s from Gwen’s eyes that we see them coming. From those very same eyes, we also see a dense mother/daughter dynamic that I’m sure someone with a monocle has written a book about. Through the thick atmosphere that McGregor drowns you in—both the evocative location and an Iceberg Theory approach to storytelling—Gwen’s feelings of isolation and deeply rooted sorrow are made very clear and very contagious. Worthington-Cox blends in well, like one of those clocks that are designed to look like an antique right out of the box.
“Through the thick atmosphere that McGregor drowns you in…Gwen’s feelings of isolation and deeply rooted sorrow are made very clear.”
What keeps the movie from being a truly great exercise in dread and vulnerability—such as The Virgin Spring—is this nervous twitch McGregor has. Without warning, as if worried that the audience will have nothing to cling to, the movie will have a muscle spasm and blurt out something ridiculous. Take, for instance, a series of flashbacks that spontaneously occur. They’re meant to show the family—father included—during a happier time, to provide a contrast with their current condition. How is this happiness communicated to the audience, you ask? Frolicking? Has anyone ever actually frolicked? No, of course not. It’s ridiculous, and all the more so in a movie as serious as this one. Another spasm occurs in the form of a C-movie horror sequence, but that’s not even worth talking about.
Again, those are only momentary problems. For the most part, Gwen achieves what it sets out to do. It surrounds you in scenic hopelessness and lets you stew in it until you’re done, or Gwen’s done. By the end of this movie, somebody’s definitely done.