starring Maxine Peake, Eleanor Worthington-Cox
written and directed by William McGregor
by Alice Stoehr The place is Wales. The time is the past. The subject is a penniless family of three. Mancunian actress Maxine Peake plays the sallow, unsmiling mother of two girls: little Mari (Jodie Innes) and teenage Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox). They live in a ramshackle farmhouse amid mossy boulders and fields of emerald grass. The sky tends to be thickly overcast; particles of soot get everywhere. Wind rasps the valley and pervades the sound design by Anna Bertmark, whose credits include You Were Never Really Here. The soundscape is much like that of Béla Tarr's The Turin Horse, another film about rural privation on an uncaring earth. Snow falls, thunder cracks, and the family's meagre assets dwindle. This is the starting point for Gwen, William McGregor's flinty debut feature. McGregor started in British television, with shows like "Misfits" and the period drama "Poldark", on both of which he collaborated with Gwen's cinematographer Adam Etherington. The two of them put tremendous discipline into the film's style, shooting across the Welsh countryside in early winter. They apply a rich visual lexicon to this desolate space: focus pulls, slow pans and zooms, reflections in sullied glass. Due to the era's lack of electricity, they favour backlighting, with pale sun penetrating the house's gloom. Night scenes rely on the unsteady and audible flames of candles or torches. It's a world of fog and fire and dirt.
"Steal a sheep, and they'll take your hand," says the mother. "Steal a mountain, and they'll make you a lord." That's the bleak thesis of Gwen, as relevant centuries later as it was in her place and time. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, the lone black member of the cast, appears as a doctor who tries to extend the family what sympathy he can--but in every interaction, his face is strained and his body is tense. He, like the dismal church the family attends, exists to serve the men in power. Gwen is neither a clever film nor a sentimental one. McGregor's writing and direction are both frank about where this story will lead and what that's meant to convey. It's an accumulation of creaks and clangs, of wood and rock, in order to show our planet as we've made it: inhospitable, barely habitable, except for the dwellings of the few. There's no mercy to that conclusion, nor to the film's assessment of love in the context of money. Peake's performance is the crown jewel here, as a woman who provides her children care without affection. The film might only descend into bloodshed near its end, at which time it's brutal though under cover of night. But it leaves the viewer no space for confusion: everyday commerce is itself a form of violence.