Set amid the slate-filled landscape of mid-19th century Snowdonia, this gothic tale of black-hearted capitalism features powerful performances from Eleanor Worthington-Cox and Maxine Peake.
It is a powerful story of grief, adolescence, suspicion and superstition that builds an atmosphere of intense dread, broken only by the realisation that the truth of industrialisation is more brutal than anything young Gwen (Worthington-Cox) can conjure in her imagination.
Teenage Gwen lives with her grim mother (Peake) and younger sister on their smallholding in mid-Wales. One by one their neighbours have left or died, with their land falling into the hands of the local black-hat-and-cape-wearing capitalist who is relentlessly expanding his slate quarry.
Gwen’s family is the last one holding out, her mum refusing to sell their home and livelihood. As the town turns against them and an escalating series of disturbing events shakes the family, Gwen tries to understand what is happening. Why does her mother have fits? Why is she self-harming? When is their dad coming home?
Folk-horror gives way to a more worldly horror, as the capitalist enlists the help of his henchman (played by Richard Harrington of Hinterland) to intimidate the family, with terrifying results.
The film is set in 1855 — precisely the time when the slate industry was taking off on an industrial scale, but long before unions were formed in the 1870s. There is no solidarity here. In the early days the slate workers thought of themselves as independent contractors with their own stake in the success of the industry. This might go some way to explain why the townspeople, who can see a future in an expanded quarry, are so quick to turn against the family, who perhaps they perceive as standing in the way of progress.
The film captures a moment in time when the shock of the new way of life obliterates old ideas of community and tradition. Or, as Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism “has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.”
This is a merciless tale that uses every gust of wind and squeak of a door to tremendous effect. I’ve not left a cinema feeling so tense since last year’s Hereditary. I consoled myself by reading about the industrial unrest that was to come in the Welsh slate industry, culminating in the Penrhyn Lockouts of the late 1890s. I recommend you watch Gwen and then do the same.