Gwen (2018) – movie review

Gwen (2018), courtesy of IMDb

Coming straight from Wales, Gwen is the directorial debut of William McGregor and, after premiering at Toronto International Film Festival, the movie is now available on Shudder and in selected UK theatres.

As for every film that premieres at TIFF, I’ve had my eyes on Gwen for a long time. Set in the hills of Wales during the industrial revolution in the 19th century, this movie follows the titular character of Gwen (a young girl played by Eleanor Worthington-Cox) who lives in a farm with her mother and little sister. Gwen’s dad left to fight in war, so the three female characters must carry the farm until the man gets back: however, when their livestock starts dying in the night and the mother gets ill, Gwen finds herself fighting against the “progress” of industrial revolution as well as the mysterious force that’s making life hard for them.

Continue reading and check my final grade below… 

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My review is also available on IMDb – Gwen (2018) 

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Gwen is a picture that combines elements of period piece, mystery and horror in a way that’s reminiscent of Robert Eggers’ The Witch: it’s an evenly paced slow-burner that heavily relies on atmosphere and setting to be effective.

Due to the remote location of the farm, isolated from the quarries and with only a tiny chapel nearby, Gwen establishes an unsettling look and feel, backed up by the jaw-dropping cinematography that benefits from some immaculate locations. Welsh hills are beautiful and immaculate, and their gorgeous impact is enhanced by McGregor’s camera-work, which is filled with wide angles and enriched by the use of crisp and washed-out lenses.

Despite its rather slow pace – which is not much of a problem given the relatively short runtime of 86 minutes, credits included – this film doesn’t shy away from sudden terrifying and intense scenes: those are both perfectly timed (such as one dream sequence towards the end that, for once, actually complements the character of Gwen) and extremely well-directed (for instance, the 360° one-take shot taking place inside the chapel).

Speaking of tension in the movie, which is present throughout on a subtle and unnerving level, the ending comes off as very climactic, with a change of pace that warrants the slowness of the first two acts. The last 20 or so minutes of Gwen, also, serve as a great way to wrap things up and tie possible loose ends together: despite the multi-layered and metaphorical aspects of this film, no questions are left unanswered here, which makes the end of the movie all the more satisfying.

As you can tell from my review so far, Gwen shares a lot of similarities with The Witch, down to the shot composition during the first half of the picture: the clear influence of Robert Eggers’s movie, however, sometimes gives the impression that this Welsh film copy-pasted scenes from one to the other. Also, it makes certain flaws more noticeable: for instance, the language in The Witch is a perfect reiteration of how people spoke in 17th century America, whereas Gwen relies on current Welsh most of the time, using Gaelic only once or twice.

Even though the main performances are solid in this film, Gwen’s little sister does nothing relevant in the movie and appears to be there just to make the audience sympathise more with Gwen’s character. Her performance is, also, rather weak.

Perhaps, the biggest flaw with Gwen revolves around a flashback reused a couple of times within this picture: it’s there to underline the contrast between happy life when the father was there and the harsh conditions now that he’s gone, but it feels like unnecessary visual exposition and breaks the flow of the movie.

If you haven’t seen this movie yet, it’s really easy for me to predict whether you’ll like it or not: if you liked The Witch, you should give it a chance. If you didn’t like Eggers’ debut feature, then avoid Gwen. This is a film that oozes atmosphere and relies on unsettling cinematography; it’s a movie that catches you off-guard with sudden instances of terror and violence; it’s a slow burner with a lot to say: in fact, after my final grade I’ll issue a spoiler-warning in case you’re confused about the meaning of Gwen.

Gwen                          7/10 (closer to an 8 than a 6)

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As I mentioned at the end of my spoiler-free review, the movie Gwen has quite a lot to say. Clearly, the film is about the contrast between farm life and industrial revolution. In fact, at the end of the movie it’s revealed that no supernatural entity killed the family’s livestock, but it was the quarries people trying to get rid of the farm to exploit the grounds.

However, Gwen is also about family drama, in the sense that the movie revolves around a secret (the mum knows her husband won’t come back, the two daughters are completely unaware of that) and how such a big secret can destroy the relationship between family members: the mother gets sick because her secret is figuratively eating her up from the inside; the daughter sees her mother as a possessed entity because of her strange behaviour.

Furthermore, this film doesn’t shy away from touching upon religion and the conception of sin as something that can tear a family apart. Gwen is influenced by her religious upbringing into thinking that their sheep are being killed by something supernatural; she’s led to believe that her mother is possessed as opposed to seeing that something psychological is affecting her.

Finally, Gwen scratches the surface of a feminist message about the oppression of patriarchal society on women. This is the subtlest meaning in the film, as the struggles of the three female characters to keep their property against a fully male-led business are shown in a very non-spoon-fed way. Many movies, nowadays, pander to this feminist message to win audiences and critics over, resulting in goofy attempts that most often than not feel fabricated: Gwen, on the other hands, delivers this message in a very effective and subtle way.

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