“Steal a sheep, and they’ll take your hand. Steal a mountain, and they’ll make you a lord.”
Set in 1855 Snowdonia, Gwen (2018) is a brooding Welsh gothic drama on the brutalities of poverty, the patriarchy, and capitalism. As William McGregor’s debut feature, the film finds its horror in the inhumane ways men appropriate, control, and abuse women’s bodies for self-serving purposes.
McGregor’s debut feature follows titular character Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), her younger sister Mari (Jodi Innes), and her mother Elen (Maxine Peake). Gwen’s father is away at war, thus leaving the women alone to fend for themselves — in a farm that barely has any livestock, a house that is barren, and a land that slate-miners are eyeing on to build their new quarry. That is not all, however. In the film, slate mining is represented by men who are delighted that these women are suffering in extreme poverty. They literally watch from a distance while these women struggle, eagerly hoping that poverty would drive them to sell their only home.
Capitalism goes hand in hand with patriarchal forces, and this is matched with a growing set of unexplained mysteries that only seem to further the women’s misery. Their sheep suddenly drop dead, an animal heart is nailed to their door, and the vegetables they grow gradually face decay. Every single incident reminds us that this land is no longer useful for farming — bringing us closer to the stark truth that it is actually the women who are deemed useless to the capitalist endeavour. In church, priests sing prayers for men and their hard work in the quarries, but the hard work that Gwen’s family put into the farm is despised. Human worth, as the film highlights, is determined by a patriarchal narrative.
Gwen invokes the return of her father as a reason to hold onto the dying farm, but we soon realise that this, too, is a cruel myth that Elen creates to protect her daughters. Just as the promise of a family reunion is false, so is the promise that the Industrial Revolution would bring about a better life.
Perhaps the most confounding mystery of all is the sudden onset of bizarre seizures that befall Elen. She is bedridden most of the time, too ill to fend off the decay which is slowly consuming her family. They cannot afford medical treatment, because even the doctor is in the pockets of slate-miners. While unexplained, the suffering inflicted upon Elen’s body is exacerbated by the cold indifference of the capitalist regime, and the men who helm it. Gwen watches as her mother withers away, taking on the role of the sole caretaker in the family. Nevertheless, Worthington-Cox’s stunning performance imbues a childlike naivety in Gwen, who does not quite understand how destitute they actually are. After all, she is still believes that her father is coming back.
Even in their absence, men continue dominate these women’s lives: in the form of mythical dreams of family reunion, in the heartbreaking lies mothers tell their daughters, and in the false promise of a better future. The real horror in Gwen lies in the poverty which slowly suffocates these women, as well as the patriarchal forces hell-bent on ensuring that they are left with nothing but lies to sustain them.
Gwen is now available on Shudder.