Directed by: William McGregor
Written by: #WilliamMcGregor
Children have long been a staple of horror movies. The Omen, in particular, shows how they can have an eerie quality, and of course, the Victorians inverted their innocence and purity into something surreal and supernatural as they repeatedly brought them back as ghosts.
From writer-director William McGregor, Gwen follows the titular young girl during a tumultuous time in her life with her mother on their farm in Wales during the Industrial Revolution, but this ghost story doesn't play out like the others.
Maxine Peake fantastically plays Gwen's mother; her performance exists on a knife-edge expertly playing the balance of kindly mother and bitter, unhinged widow. While this film is seen through the eyes of Gwen, it is Peake and the other adult cast that really build and shake the world around her.
McGregor establishes very early on that there is something not right; a cholera outbreak is threatening the town, other farms are disappearing and animals are being mysteriously slaughtered in the night. McGregor's control of this growing atmosphere is at the core of what makes this film work. Gwen keeps thinking she sees something, but never in the full light; while adults discuss things in locked rooms and their conversations are unheard, even by the audience, as the rising wind drowns out their voices. In the first thirty minutes we see the emerging themes of primal nature against new technology and industry and like, Gwen, we are peering around every corner because, the children may be innocent, but they are living in a very adult world.
To all intents and purposes, Gwen is quite a simple story but leaves its horror and mystery at its edges hinting at but never fully showing anything.
So many #horror movies rely on jump scares and clever camera work to give you a physical fright but fail at tapping into something more unsettling, by either not bothering at all or expressly revealing every mystery by the end. While we eventually do find out what is happening (and when we do it is with a sickening sense of familiarity) it wouldn't be nearly as effective if McGregor didn't use the majority of the film to push the boundaries of the familiar to actively engage in the audience's imagination. This may end up boring or even irritating some people but if you let the film lead you you'll find that it has a lot more paths than the one it actually takes you down.
Gwen has an impressively short running time for a feature film but it stays with you long after its finished. While it's very different, the film Burning released earlier this year, shares similar qualities with Gwen. Burning is a mystery film but feels as though one vital scene was cut out; even though we've seen all the action by the end, we haven't necessarily understood it all and every single shot could be layered in meaning and clues. Because Gwen is told through the eyes of a child there are scenes in the film that may be exaggerated or figments of the imagination and despite seeing the whole story we know that there is still the sense of something missing or that we didn't understand and it is this that makes the film's ghost.
All in all, Gwen is a very impressive debut and whatever McGregor does next is worth looking out for.