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Simon Read [Film Festival 07.03.19] "drama" "mystery"

Writer-director William McGregor's atmospheric folk-horror Gwen, tells the story of a family living in 19th Century rural Wales. Eldest daughter Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) lives with her mother and younger sister, and struggles to hold the family together since her father left for war - A task made increasingly difficult when she begins to suspect the moors surrounding their tiny, isolated farm may be haunted by a demon.

If there's one thing which works superbly well in Gwen it's the location. Snowdonia itself is a character in the film, its harsh, misty, mountainous terrain reflecting the hardship faced by this little family - McGregor's camera really feels as though it captures the essence of this place and time.

The rest of the film is something of a mixed bag - while the acting and cinematography are impressive, and there are a number of effective scares, the film seems almost determined to grind us down with the sheer misery of its characters' daily lives. I'm not going to argue that a life of rural poverty in Wales at that time would have been a laugh riot, but there is a balancing act that needs to be considered when presenting this kind of story to an audience.

Gwen and her family raise sheep and grow produce to sell at a local market. The wealthy owner of a nearby quarry, Mr. Wynne, pressures them to sell their land, but Gwen's strict, god-fearing mother (an intense Maxine Peake) won't hear of it. When Gwen starts hearing noises coming from outside the house at night, she believes a supernatural presence is haunting the farm, fuelling her mother's religious hysteria and causing the woman to suffer a series of worsening seizures for which they cannot hope to afford medical treatment.

Things only get worse. Their flock is attacked during the night and slaughtered, an animal's heart appears nailed to the door of their home, their horse becomes lame, and a cholera epidemic sweeps the village. Gwen is punished for even the slightest transgression. As her mother's health - both physical and mental - deteriorates, Gwen starts to suffer disturbing visions and night terrors. A final confrontation with evil marks the climax, only it is not the kind of evil we've been led to expect...

It was the scene involving the family's ailing horse that prompted me to write 'Too much' (underlined) in my notepad, and that was the moment I stopped emotionally investing in the film. When we are given no hope, only abject suffering and relentless hardship, it is very difficult not to simply disengage. Things become so overwrought that the couple behind me actually laughed; I just felt tired.

The film offers some creepy images and startling jump-scares; it has a wonderful sense of atmosphere and geography; and it feels like a very noble attempt to tell a story with a message, but it constantly pushes us away with its bleakness. Crucially, we begin to forget about demons and witches, the supernatural element of the film quietly taking a back seat in the narrative to the harrowing misfortune of Gwen and her beleaguered clan.

Gwen is a film that is easy to admire in some respects - it certainly doesn't lack conviction - but very difficult to actually watch. It's a handsomely mounted production with well-staged fright scenes, but detracting from this is the near constant severity of the characters' lives - pushing it dangerously close towards the realm of self-parody. For fans of spooky folk-horror and lush cinematography, there is much to appreciate here, but it ain't exactly a fun time at the movies. You've been warned.

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