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Director William McGregor Makes a Stunning Debut With the Period Chiller 'Gwen'


BLEAK HOUSE Horrifying violence and tragedy visit members of an - isolated Welsh family in McGregor’s shockingly accomplished debut.
  • BLEAK HOUSE Horrifying violence and tragedy visit members of anisolated Welsh family in McGregor’s shockingly accomplished debut.

William McGregor's first feature is slated for limited release on August 16. That will be a very good day for the movies. Rarely in 35 years have I encountered a freshman effort as assured, inventive and relentlessly surprising as Gwen. In a perfect world, it would proceed directly to wide release, but just in case the world turns out to be less than perfect, same-day streaming deals have been inked with iTunes, Amazon and Shudder. Whatever you need to do to see this, do it.

The setting is 19th-century Wales. To be precise, it's Snowdonia, high in the mountains and at the dawn of the industrial revolution. To be even more precise, it's a stark structure that's home to a mother and her two daughters. The father, glimpsed in fantasies and flashbacks, has gone off to war.

Maxine Peake is Elen, a matriarch physically up to working the family's meager sheep and potato farm but psychologically fragile. Her girls never know which mother will walk into the room — the almost demonically raging one or the more zombified one. Jodie Innes plays Mari, the youngest child. Eleanor Worthington-Cox gives a precociously nuanced performance in the title role, a feat all the more impressive given that the actress was just 16.

I know what you're thinking: 19th-century Snowdonia. Barren, wind-battered mountains. Potatoes. Wake me when it's over. That was my feeling, too. But here's the thing: The opening moments are so gorgeously accomplished and ingeniously plotted that I was instantly sucked in.

McGregor, who also wrote the screenplay, proves fiendishly adept at stirring familiar genres into something deliciously fresh and unpredictable. It's been ages since a filmmaker so thrillingly said nope to the trope. (I'm transported back to the time I watched Blue Velvet in the company of David Lynch. Another story.)

Early on, we appear headed for gothic horror. A hike home from church ends with the discovery of a human heart fixed to the family's door on a spike. A stormy night gives way to a morning's discovery of sheep ripped apart and strewn about. Gwen sings her sister to sleep, then dreams of her mother bathed in blood.

Just when you expect jump scares and supernatural high jinks to take over, McGregor shifts gears. We meet a boy with a crush on Gwen. Oh no, not a YA romance? Nope. Elen develops a mysterious condition that produces seizures. Yikes, not a tragic disease drama? Nope. The nearest neighbors die of cholera. Not a tale of terrifying contagion? Nope.

Meanwhile, piece by piece, McGregor reveals everything we need to know to solve his ominous puzzle. Is the answer as unsettling as the gothic horror we thought we were in for? Nope. Way crazier.

Speaking of Lynch, I haven't experienced as startlingly innovative a movie soundscape since first seeing Eraserhead (1977). In Gwen, sound designer Anna Bertmark has a visionary way with everything from the howling hinterland winds to the cries of beasts. As British writer Will Self wrote in his novel Umbrella, "A horse's scream is a fearful thing." Bertmark will leave you convinced. A thunderclap 32 minutes in is quite honestly worth the price of admission.

You owe it to yourself to see what happens to these three, so close to the clouds and so far from the relative safety of civilization. Gwen is a big-screen banquet for the senses, a genre unto itself. Moviemaking this masterful won't go unnoticed in Hollywood. Enjoy the Brit director's brilliance while you can. Any minute now, he'll get an irresistible offer from Marvel.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Gwen"