Gwen. 2019. Directed & Written by William McGregor.
Starring Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Maxine Peak, Mark Lewis Jones, Richard Harrington, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Richard Elfyn, & Gwion Glyn.
BFI Film Fund / Endor Productions
Not Rated / 84 minutes
Drama / History / Horror / Mystery
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
Here, there be spoilers.
William McGregor’s done a bunch of shorts, though most will currently recognise his work on television. He’s directed episodes of shows like Misfits, Poldark, and the grim, tense Scottish mini-series One of Us. More people are about to recognise him in the film world with his eerie period piece, Gwen— a harsh look at a woman’s world in the mid-1800s, and a haunting, Marxist portrait of Wales ravaged by modernity during the Industrial Revolution.
The eponymous character Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) is an adolescent girl living in Snowdonia, Wales during 1855. The lives of farmers were changing with the slate mines. Likewise, religion was changing. Nonconformity thrived right alongside the Industrial Revolution itself— two forces borne of the middle class. Gwen’s mother Elen (Maxine Peak) tries to keep the farm going while her husband’s absence is never wholly explained. She relies on Gwen to help with the sheep, the horse, cooking, and caring for her younger sister, too.
Yet Elen isn’t all that well. She’s fraying in the absence of her husband, and due to their seemingly cursed farm, plus the wealthy industrialist, Mr. Wynne (Mark Lewis Jones), trying to buy it. Gwen has to navigate the difficulties of leaving childhood behind, introduced to the brutal existence that is adulthood, right as her mother falls apart physically and psychologically, which renders the family’s future uncertain in her hands.
McGregor’s screenplay explores the beginnings of modern history in Wales via a microcosm. Gwen’s experience— a girl forced to become a woman at a point in her life when she ought to be able to grow up gradually and retain a semblance of innocence— parallels Wales going through its industrial transformation. She and her mother symbolise the struggles of women and the working class within a rapidly industrialised society. And the creepy atmosphere McGregor draws out over the course of 84 minutes is the perfect sort of existential terror to accompany the heavy themes.
“Steal a sheep
and they’ll take your hand.
Steal a mountain
and they’ll make you a lord.”
Wales is a perfect setting for looking into issues surrounding the Industrial Revolution. Its picturesque landscape is where nature meets modernity with industrialisation taking a toll on the natural world and, in turn, reshaping certain aspects of Welsh culture. Going from an economy of agriculture to an industrial one immediately opens up a class divide. We see how, in Wales, the farmers automatically became the working class, versus a wealthy, powerful middle class of quarry owners. Along with the Industrial Revolution in Wales came the further expansion of Nonconformity— Nonconformists were those who refused to conform to the Church of England.
Part of Nonconformist ideology involves upward (or social) mobility, based in class and economics. Those drawn to the Nonconformist worldview were part of the fast-growing bourgeoisie and McGregor portrays organised religious institutions as another arm of capitalism. One important scene in the local church exemplifies this bourgeois Nonconformity, featuring a priest giving thanks to natural resources and framing coal as the “light of Jesus Christ” that will ward off evil.
An interesting addition to the film is Dr. Wren (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), a Welshman of African heritage. In terms of race history, the country has one of the UK’s oldest multi-ethnic communities in Cardiff, nicknamed Tiger Bay, after centuries of black presence in the country due to abolitionists bringing emancipated slaves back to Wales. It’s interesting to see how class is even stronger than race, juxtaposing the social standing of Dr. Wren— who works for the quarry as part of the industrial middle class— with Elen’s poor white family being part of the lower working class, incapable of affording the medicine he prescribes and ultimately scapegoated by industrialists.
Elen’s family suffers further because of the Nonconformist idea of separate spheres— modern patriarchal ideology that emerged during the Industrial Revolution, dividing home and work distinctly and resulting in strict modern gender roles. The idea boils down to men working in the public sphere v. women avoiding it, or, basically, that women should remain domestic. Because Elen insists on keeping her farm she remains in a pre-modern system with a lack of distinction between work and home, and thus does not fall in with how a Nonconformist women ought to live.
Like Lukas Fiegelfeld’s recent film Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse, McGregor’s Gwen focuses primarily on a female perspective— even more specifically relationships between mothers and daughters. The pure dread of each film comes to represent a woman’s personal horror dealing with patriarchal forces. Here, this is heightened by Gwen’s childhood innocence eroding as she starts to figure out the reality of the world hidden behind her mother’s protective veil. Elen doesn’t only keep secrets about the family, her superstitious thoughts likewise warp Gwen’s concept of the real world.
The best example of this is the scene when Gwen catches her mother cutting open a vein and letting her blood run into a bowl. The girl finds out this is a Christian belief held over from the Middle Ages, that ill people had too much blood, requiring bloodletting from specific veins to cure various illnesses. At its core, this is based in the idea that sin requires a physical atonement in blood. Elen plays into other superstitious beliefs, like how she burns the dead sheep, breaks their charred bones into pieces, and scatters the remains just off their farm’s land. All this confuses Gwen, building up walls around her and the real world, especially dangerous in a world lurching towards modernity, and the mother’s lack of honesty only prevents her daughter from preparing for the truth.
“I did it to protect you”
An interesting vein of the screenplay involves witchcraft, a historical method of misogyny, though McGregor uses it subtly. In part, this is because of the history of witchcraft in Wales. The country’s familiarity with druids and paganism meant witches weren’t charged, tried, and executed like they were across Early Modern Europe. Between 1550 and 1720, 42 people were indicted for witchcraft across Wales, and very few were executed— notably, these instances happened in English courts— versus the 50,000 burned at the stake from 1580 to 1630 in Europe.
How does this relate to Gwen‘s plot?
The wealthy quarry owner buying up land in Snowdonia, whom Elen comes across, is very likely meant to be a British lord, wearing his nice suit and a top hat. He turns up all over Snowdonia looking for land to purchase for the quarry. Although the one dead family we see him skulking around early on is said to have died from cholera— in the fall of 1854, 20 people per day were dying from it in Cardiff— it’s entirely possible he’s only using the quarry’s doctor, Dr. Wren, as a way to cover them after they had to lethally appropriate some land.
In a later scene, Elen discovers a sheep’s heart on her door, full of nails. This comes from superstition and folklore. In his book Magical House Protection: The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft, author Brian Haggard writes: “Folklore tells us that if a person stuck a freshly removed hearts with pins, it could remove any witchcraft placed on the person doing it.” Sheep and bull hearts were commonly pierced with nails in Early Modern England to try breaking a witch’s spell over a farmer’s livestock. We’d normally assume this was left on Elen’s door by a neighbouring farmer, except that she gives a short monologue to her daughter about how they’re the only farm left in that area. Safe to assume the nailed sheep heart was probably left by Mr. Wynne, or one of the locals under his influence, symbolic of another extension of British influence trying to invade Welsh culture. Wynne brings industry and jobs. Along with it comes the destructive forces of industrialisation, culturally and economically. The finale continues to evoke the horrors of witchcraft visit specifically upon women with a shocking act of violence.
In terms of the feminist themes, Elen and Gwen’s names are significant. Gwen’s name is likely short for Guinevere, whose image has been distorted by dominant patriarchal perspectives in English literature. Helen Fulton discusses the famous figure from Arthurian legend in an article called “A Woman’s Place: Guinevere in the Welsh and French Romances.” She writes about how Guinevere fell into a medieval stereotype of the ‘faithless queen’ because of her defiance of moral and social code by taking lovers that went against what was expected. The male canonical view of her was as a woman who posed “a threat to the male social order” (Fulton 1). The author proves that Guinevere, and other female figures like her, are “marginalised within patriarchal discourse” (3). The character of Gwen, as a girl growing up in her mother’s independent image, embodies this threat to the male order, and Elen is her feminist beacon.
This is where Elen’s name is of even greater significance. Elen of the Hosts was a historical woman who lived during the 4th century, and a legend in Celtic / Welsh mythology. She’s connected to the concept of sovereignty, known for having her Roman Emperor husband, Magnus Maximus, build roads across the country so soldiers could protect them from invasion. The idea of sovereignty speaks directly to the character Elen in the film, whose fierce independence and refusal to bow to British industrial interests evokes the spirit of her mythological namesake.
Gwen calls to mind the lyrics of “Mother” by Pink Floyd. Roger Waters wrote the song from the perspective of an ageing rock star, Pink, whose mother became overbearing after losing a husband to WWII. Pink’s situation is reminiscent to that of Gwen’s, and how Elen, in the wake of her husband leaving, shields her daughter from the world’s realities in an attempt to protect her. Floyd’s Pink is a bitter man looking back on his mother, whereas McGregor’s Gwen, in spite of the secret Elen kept, loves her mother.
In that final moment between Gwen and her little sister, Elen’s secret keeping becomes, to her eldest daughter, an epitome of her strength as a woman who’d do anything to keep her children from having to learn the world’s hideousness before absolutely necessary. Although the ending is more bitter than sweet, it’s nonetheless a powerful way for the plot to conclude. There’s tragedy in Gwen and her sister walking off towards a grim, lonely, and unpredictable horizon. There also remains a strange glimmer of hope she’ll carry the strength of her mother with them to the burgeoning industrial world into which she’s barbarically been thrust.
Fulton, Helen. “A Woman’s Place: Guinevere in the Welsh and French Romances.” Quondam et Futurus, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Summer 1993), pp. 1-25.
Haggard, Brian. Magical House Protection: The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft. Berghahn Books: New York, 2019.