GWEN (Cert. 15) begins in Caernarfon’s bleak mid-winter of 1855 to the moan of frosty wind — a sound we’ll hear throughout this film. Unlike the carol, however, one has to search diligently for redeeming love breaking into this hill-farming community.
The director William McGregor’s intention in his feature-length debut was to demonstrate how landscape and folklore informed the traditions and beliefs of a local community. Eleanor Worthington-Cox, who came to prominence as the eponymous Matilda in the stage show, plays Gwen, a girl in her mid-teens. Nearly everything is from her point of view, interpreting snatches of adult conversations and actions as best she can. With her younger sister Mari (Jodie Innes), she plays around a dolmen-like tomb rock — or perhaps it’s a sacrificial altar. The prospect of death looms large in this study of people leading lives of quiet desperation.
The children’s mother, Elen (Maxine Peake), struggles to keep body and soul intact. She typifies the stoical peasant who, in R. S. Thomas’s words, “season by season Against siege of rain and the wind’s attrition . . . is a winner of wars”. Speaking of this, we are told that her husband is away at war, in the Crimea, presumably. His absence feels akin to an abiding presence. Dreamlike flashbacks suggest that before his departure life was a joy, despite the harsh conditions — a paradise lost.
Peake’s character is a far cry from her feisty lawyer of television’s Silk or the stand-up comic of Funny Cow, and nearer to her turn in Peterloo or Hamlet. And little wonder; for this is a grim tale unrelieved by chapel worship. After a litany of world evils, the preacher thanks Jesus for the light that banishes the devil. There is little evidence of Satan’s defeat; for Elen is being terrorised (crops ruined, livestock slaughtered, etc.) into selling the farm to mining interests. “Steal a sheep,” she tells her girls, “and they will take your hand. Steal a mountain, and they’ll make you a lord.”
Whether she consistently believes her own social analysis is doubtful, as she also self-harms. Elen, whose health is frail, is holding some guilt or hurt to herself. Gwen reports this to the doctor, who says that some believe that sin can be relieved through skin. As the blood passes from the body, so does the evil. Perhaps this explains McGregor’s interest in how geography and culture shape our outlook. A punitive God would accord with the unforgiving hills that have made Elen hard.
The absence of a loving father equates with the spiritual forsakenness that the family experiences. Gwen slowly realises, even appreciates, the necessity for the tough love that her mother metes out. There will be no deus ex machina in this scenario. The film is decidedly not the Gothic horror movie that some critics have dubbed it: a couple of scary moments are entirely attributable to nightmares, not the supernatural.
Gwen is a great deal more ambitious a film than that. It suggests that looking for some kind of Father is a perennial quest of the human race. Despite the film’s all-but-unremitting bleakness, it allows us to entertain fragile hopes of incarnation.