'Gwen' a pretty, but ho-hum period horror tale
"Gwen" -- ★ ★
It's hard to tell if William McGregor's dark and murky, unsatisfying gothic drama "Gwen" wants to be a cutting art-house horror tale like Robert Eggers' "The Witch" or a fuzzy indictment of the evils of unchecked capitalism.
Either way, "Gwen" (based on McGregor's film short "Who's Afraid of the Water Sprite?") quickly becomes a visually exquisite movie dressed up with no where for the characters to go.
A family of three -- a hardened and unemotive mother Elen (Maxine Peake), a resourceful adolescent Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) and her younger sister Mari (Jodie Innes) -- eke out a sparse living on a stony farm in the harsh, austere 19th-century Welsh countryside.
While waiting for their missing husband/father to return home from war, the three deal with an epic string of hardships. Something kills their sheep. Their horse must be put down. Their puny vegetables won't sell at the market.
Clearly, something wrong seems to be out there in the stormy mist, but McGregor never tightens his dramatic spring, resulting in a sloggy trek toward an underwhelming finale that feels more like the ending of a first act.
A young village boy's attentions toward Gwen never come to fruition. An expanding coal company could be a source of vague villainy.
McGregor, no doubt, intended to avoid familiar devices in period horror tales, yet succumbs to other cheap cliches, such as the jump-scare that turns out to be a bad dream.
Late at night during a wind storm, Gwen thinks she hears someone or something outside. What does she do?
Instead of remaining safe inside, she walks out into the storm in her nightclothes with a lantern to investigate. (Hasn't she ever seen a 1980s teenager mad-slasher movie?)
Yet another time, Gwen pries open a boarded-up door to a house where a family was found dead. Surprise! She finds Mom hiding in the shadows. But how did she get inside, then board up the door from the outside?
More important, why didn't perceptive Gwen notice this?
Adam Etherington's widescreen camera work approaches Kubrickian levels of haunted moods, often with single-source lighting from a candle, fireplace or window.
Still, the visual joys of "Gwen" can't compensate for the parched story they tell.
Worthington-Cox makes an impressive lead actress here. (She played Elle Fanning's younger version from 2014's "Maleficent.") Her readable expressions and wide, vulnerable eyes prove to be hypnotic in a movie struggling not to put us to sleep.
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Starring: Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Mark Lewis Jones, Maxine Peake
Directed by: William McGregor
Other: An RLJE Films release. Not rated by the MPAA; contains violence. 98 minutes