By Tony Williams.
Gwen (2019) is one of those rare surprises in contemporary film reviewing. Rather than fall into the usual mindless patterning of most generic films constantly regurgitating and exhausting past formulas in the usual “repetition-compulsion” of most studio productions, it excitingly offers something different. Produced by a number of film companies such as the BFI, Endor Productions, and Film Cymru, the DVD box cover deceptively contains a marketing device designed to appeal to viewers wanting “more of the same.” However, once they watch intelligent viewers will find themselves cheated of former expectations and pleasantly surprised at original directions pursued.
The cover depicts the shadowy neo-noir Gothic image of a heroine holding a cross with the logo “The Dark Outside is Calling for Her.” We have read such representations before both in traditional Gothic by Horace Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe to say nothing of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1803/1817) whose heroine discovers that the real horror she faces is material and not supernatural. Shot against the beautiful landscape of Snowdonia, North Wales, audiences expect another glamorized British heritage film. They will be disappointed. Lower rather than upper class figures are central characters. The landscape certainly reproduces key elements of the Gothic, especially “Sturm und “Drang” dark associations of the Romantic tradition that influenced The Gothic. As Maxine Peake states in her DVD interview, the film belongs to the British tradition of “folk horror” or “Wyrd” as it is otherwise know. (1) However, Adam Etherington’s breathtaking cinematography is no picture postcard tourist seductive vision but one totally integrated into a narrative that is political, rather than supernatural. It indirectly evokes the suggested menace of two famous stories by Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), “The Willows” (1907) and “The Wendigo” (1910) that earned H.P. Lovecraft’s respect in his classic essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” anthologized in many collections and referred to in contemporary treatments of modern Gothic. Yet, while Blackwood’s tales operated by suggestion, Gwen evokes this author’s technique but changes the rules by revealing dark meanings in a manner akin to Franco Moretti’s essay “The Dialectic of Fear” in his essay collection Signs Taken for Wonders that displays capitalist associations dormant within Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
Gwen knows generic conventions and plays on audience familiarity only to strip away illusions to reveal what really lies beneath. Viewers may easily jump to conclusions that soon collapse. Peake’s Elen is a stern North Wales matriarch struggling to hold on to the family farm while her husband is absent on one of Britain’s colonial ventures. She has two young daughters, Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) who acts as carer to her younger sibling Mari (Jodie Innes). Elen struggles against overwhelming odds for survival and suffers epileptic fits. The nearby village appears hostile to their plight and Elen faces constant attempts by the owner of a slate quarry, Mr. Wynne (Mark Lewis Jones), to purchase their property. A nearby family die supposedly from cholera and sheep perish after a mysterious night attack by some unseen force. Elen and Gwen suffer from increasing physical and psychological strain. The only sympathetic character appears to be local Doctor Wren (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) who indirectly helps them with medical supplies. Harri Morris (Gwion Glynn) appears attracted to Gwen but is abruptly removed by his father before he can purchase vegetables she has brought to market to sell and not diminish further their already reduced finances.
Eventually, the film moves towards its apocalyptic climax, one that has political overtones rather than supernatural evasion. The death of one character occurs in a manner evoking the Salem Witch Trials where property, rather than satanic associations, was really the main cause. Ironically, Gwen concludes with Gwen repeating the dangerous denial syndrome of “family secrets” that mother used against her, to comfort her younger sister to whom she will be mother in all but name. This again suggests continuance of menacing repetition-compulsion denial rather than confronting the reality of something that will continue to exercise control in future historical eras.
This is a film worth seeing. It reveals challenging work capable of rising above formula, expertly directed by William McGregor, superbly photographed, with two female leads revealing accomplished North Wales accents, supported by local Welsh acting talent. Unfortunately, through no fault of his own, Ghanaian-born British actor Holdbrook Smith sticks out like a sore thumb in this production. It is highly unlikely that a trained doctor of African origins would be working in such an isolated area during 1855, let alone any other time in the Victorian era! (2) Gwen fully reveals what most contemporary generic examples attempt to conceal. With continuing research on The Gothic pioneering new avenues, it may now be time to question Andrew Britton’s earlier assertion that “The Gothic no longer registers a hesitation at the surface of the text, but produces an esoteric sub-text which is directly at odds with the offered significance.” (3) No longer is this the case. Britton’s premature demise removed him from witnessing the recent resurgence in Gothic Studies, a movement, that like postmodernism, he might have continued to exercise skepticism. However, exceptions exist to every rule. Gwen many be one such example.
- For another representation of this tradition see “The `Urban Wyrd’ in Folk Horror”, https://celluloidwickerman.com/2015/04/13/ the-urban –wyrd-in –folk-horror/. Accessed October 6 2019.
- This is obviously due to misguided politically correct moves in British film and television to achieve a more equitable racial balance in acting. However, retreat into nostalgic escapism such as Downtown Abbey (2011-2015) and Victoria (2016- ) has resulted in a death of contemporary- set productions that could better address this issue. The black Chartist storming the gates of Buckingham Palace and indirectly responsible for the young Queen’s premature labor in the age of “Windrush” (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windrush_scandal is one of the most despicable and racist moments in contemporary British television. Perhaps refusal to confront the Conservative Party’s policy of “austerity” resulting in the genocide of many homeless, mentally and physically disabled in the current decade may be responsible. During June, the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre launched a production of Hobson’s Choice with a black actor in the title character’s role. Whether the sequel to Downton Abbey – The Movie (2019) will have an Afro-Caribbean actor playing King George V remains open.
- “The Devil Probably: The Symbolism of Evil”, The American Nightmare. Eds. Robin Wood and Richard Lippe. Toronto Festival of Festivals, 1979, p. 39.
Tony Williams is an independent writer and a contributing editor to Film International.