Gwen (15) | Close-Up Film Review
This is a dark period drama set in Snowdonia, North Wales in 1855. Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) is a teenage girl living with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and her younger sister Mari (Jodie Innes) on a remote farm. Their father has not returned from the Crimean war. It is a hand to mouth existence and Elen, who is unwell and subject to epileptic fits, is struggling to keep the farm going in the absence of her husband. The owner of the local quarry is trying to force her to sell the farm so the land can be mined for slate but she refuses, even though all her neighbours have given way under the ruthless pressure – pressure she now experiences herself, when the family’s sheep are brutally slaughtered.
The little family struggle on as one disaster follows another and it moves inexorably to its tragic, violent and downbeat ending.
The story is told through Gwen’s eyes, so when she is confused, we are confused with her. Despite her youth (18 years old) Worthington-Cox is an experienced actress and she plays the role well, while nobody is better at playing women struggling under the weight of poverty and deprivation than Maxine Peake. One piece of casting is slightly puzzling, being that of Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as the local doctor, who appears to be in league with the wicked capitalists. We are today uncovering many examples of black British citizens who played a part in our history much earlier than the twentieth century but a highly qualified doctor in a remote nineteenth century village seems to be stretching credibility just a touch in the laudable interests of diversity.
Writer/director William McGregor has an impressive track record in terms of award winning short films and television series, most notably Poldark – also big on landscape – which is presumably why public funding bodies such as the BFI Film Fund and Ffilm Cymru Wales were happy to support this, his first feature film. And the film is beautifully made with great attention to detail, as in the furnishings and artefacts of the family’s humble cottage. But it is so downbeat that I doubt it would ever have been made without that public funding.
It is a touch puzzling why so many young British directors are so keen to explore depressing themes and stories, which may win awards and critical plaudits but have very limited audience appeal. Recent examples are Dark River (2017), Possum (2018) and the utterly joyless Two for Joy (2018), though an exception was James Gardner’s Jellyfish (2018), which demonstrated that a downbeat story can also entertain. That film interestingly appeared to have had no public funding.
So one wonders why those who run such funds have such a tendency to select so many of the miserabilist projects out of all the zillions of scripts they must have submitted to them. Maybe they recognise a talent which may one day come up with an idea which will appeal to a wider audience but which first needs to get the downbeat misery out of the way? With his experience of directing the very popular Poldark, the undoubtedly talented William McGregor may well be one of them.