It’s how every Robin Hood movie starts. Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), her mother (Maxine Peake), and her little sister, Mari (Jodi Innes), live alone in a remote region of Wales. It’s a harsh environment and Gwen’s father is away in the war, but they get by and have been running the farm in his absence.
Like Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, there’s a group called the quarry that has everyone in the area afraid to cross them. They want Gwen’s mother to sell them her farm and aren’t happy when she refuses. This is where the Robin Hood comparisons collapse, because while those stories would have someone take up Gwen’s family’s cause and help them stand up to their oppressors, Gwen shows what happens when there’s no Robin Hood and the town is too afraid to support them.
Is Gwen a religious horror movie? Technically yes but calling it that is misleading. It’s the whole square-rectangle debacle in film terms. All horror movies are horrific, but a film can be horrific without being considered a horror movie, and that’s because “horror film” connotes genre. Both the trailer and the cover art for Gwen misrepresent it as some kind of possession flick, akin to The Exorcist. The fact that it’s streaming on Shudder adds to that impression. In an interview for the DVD Peake describes Gwen as folk horror, and there’s an argument to be made for that, but mostly Gwen’s horror is grounded in reality and humanity’s capacity for cruelty. This is a film that’s geared for fans of historical fiction yet is being treated as a scary movie and while that may get it more views, it won’t connect it with its audience.
It’s hard to know whether Gwen’s marketing changes how you watch this movie, too, in terms of expectations and whether you’d think to look for a supernatural explanation, if it weren’t for the trailer nudging you in that direction. It’s a slow build, with minimal dialogue, and some will get fed up with the way Gwen takes its time, but anytime you limit the dialogue it makes what does get said more meaningful. Gwen’s family have a complicated relationship with religion (as seen by the lengths they go to attend chapel each week, and how little support they get when Gwen’s mom suffers an epileptic seizure). A scene like Gwen’s mom complaining the food is burnt, right after Gwen’s recited grace, takes on new meaning when viewed collectively with other scenes about religion in this movie.
Considering what the quarry gets away with, out in the open, it’s also terrifying to watch them turn the town against Gwen’s family by preying on their fear of getting sick. Gwen tries to get the doctor to tell her what’s wrong with her mother, but he won’t give her condition a name. Without one, people assume she’s contagious. It’s the same way Gwen sees her family’s future in a neighboring family, who died from cholera. Gwen suspects they may have died for other reasons but who’s going to risk catching cholera to find out?
Gwen is available on Blu-Ray and DVD starting October 8th from RLJE Films. It may not provide escapism, but sometimes the Hollywood ending gets tiring, too, especially when it relies on a Robin Hood-type showing up.
Bonus Features: An Interview with Maxine Peake, An Interview with Eleanor Worthington-Cox, and two photo galleries