Without light, darkness has no impact, and William McGregor’s feature debut ‘Gwen’ is relentlessly dark. This is both a literal description – the images are often pitch-black save for a flicker of candlelight – and a storytelling one. The female characters in this horror film set in a windswept, mud-splattered, greyscale nineteenth-century Wales suffer and suffer and suffer. Then, for good measure, they suffer some more.
Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) lives with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and younger sister Mari (Jodie Innes) hopefully awaiting the return of her father who is MIA in the Crimean War. Their family cottage is coveted by malevolent local men and holding on to it is increasingly tricky as mysterious terrors infuse the space. Sheep are slaughtered, Elen is spotted bloodletting in corners and bodies are pulled out of the local quarry.
While these images hold a supernatural potency, amplified by the natural drama of Snowdonia’s mountainous landscape, there is precious little for the characters to do. Peake is relegated to shrill notes (keep a tally on how many times her character screams ‘Get out!!’), while Worthington-Cox performs variations on teary-eyed shock, and does heroic work by telegraphing tumultuous depths and raw vulnerability. McGregor has flair for creating unsettling atmospheres, but the story is just a vague, undercooked base for an onslaught of bleak visuals. He won’t let a single scene unfold without menace – not even one involving the sale of carrots. By the time the brutal finale comes around, ‘Gwen’ is too steeped in darkness for another splash of black to register.