Set during the industrial revolution in Wales, Gwen is the newest attempt at “folk horror”, transposing a horror story against the setting traditional of a folktale. Although it doesn’t quite work as a horror movie, Gwen is nonetheless a mostly compelling film about the struggles faced by the working class in that era.
The movie follows a young girl who tries to keep her home together as her mother suffers from a mysterious illness, her father is absent, a mining company is trying to take their land, and mysterious occurrences around their property cause suspicions to arise. This film is very much a slow burn, playing off of the paranoia of the protagonist and the townspeople to create and sustain tension.
However, this tension doesn’t result to much in the long run because it never really pays off. Tension turns into suspense when there is something to which that tension is building. The best slow burn horror movies give short bursts of excitement throughout to foreshadow what will be coming in the end. Ultimately, this is what is missing in Gwen — the anticipation which is ultimately the founding principle of horror.
The character development is also lackluster too. Although it is possible for a horror film to get by on minimal dialogue (see The VVitch, a more successful example of “folk horror”), it must rely on other means of developing the characters, and that is also absent from Gwen. We sympathize with her because of the way she is treated by her family and her town, but we are unable to understand much about her personality from what we see of her.
That said, young actress Eleanor Worhtington-Cox makes the most out of the role she is given, and transforms Gwen into a character who is a protagonist whom we want to follow. Worthington-Cox is charming and likable, bringing to the character a bright-eyed optimism buried deep beneath a facade of cynicism. In simpler terms, Worthington-Cox is able to make the protagonist feel like a kid despite all of the very grown-up things she is having to do.
The movie also addresses the treatment of working-class citizens in a way that is very thought-provoking. Although the evaluation of this theme is done with specific reference to the Welsh industrial revolution, many of the issues faced by the characters still ring true today, and this is what makes the film truly horrifying. The way in which Gwen is treated because no one in her family can work is absolutely disgusting.
Director William McGregor does a wonderful job of immersing you in the world of the movie as well. Although it can get to be a bit hard to see at times, the dark and obscured cinematography goes a long way in creating a sense of unease about the film as a whole. Additionally, the production design is excellent, periodizing the movie quite well.
Although it does have quite a few shortcomings, Gwen also has a lot of things to appreciate. It would have been nice to see these important themes addresses with a story that is a bit more exciting, but nonetheless, this film is worth a watch.
Gwen hits theaters and VOD on August 16.