Tag Archives: C+

GWEN

Producer: Hilary Bevan Jones and Tom Nash
Director: William McGregor
Writer: William McGregor
Stars: Eleanor Worthingto-Cox, Maxine Peake, Jodie Innes, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Gwion Glyn, Richard Harrington and Richard Elfyn
Studio: RLJ Entertainment

C+

A bleak drama about women struggling to survive in the male-dominated, industrializing countryside of Wales in the nineteenth century, “Gwen” at first carries suggestions of supernatural evil afoot, but ultimately William McGregor’s debut film discloses that the real horror lies in man’s capacity for cruelty and greed. While visually striking and atmospheric, the film is hobbled by its narrative murkiness.

The audience’s perspective is that of the titular character (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), a teen scraping out a living with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and younger sister Mari (Jodie Innes) on a desolate plot of land in craggy Snowdonia, where they raise potatoes and keep a flock of sheep. Elen’s husband is gone—she tells the girls that he’s off soldiering, and will return to them, though there are suggestions that’s not the case.

The region is suffused with death: a family living nearby has died suddenly—it’s announced they succumbed to cholera—and the heart of an animal is nailed to the door of the women’s isolated stone cabin, a perpetually gloomy place where Gwen hears strange noises, sees wispy apparitions, and has nightmares—while the wind shrieks constantly outside under a slate-gray sky. The mood of foreboding is made all the more dire by Elen’s strictness with the girls, which can take a sharp, nasty edge.

Elen is also subject to increasingly frequent fits, which lead her to shut herself up alone in her room at night, cutting her arms, though whether as a primitive mode of medicinal bloodletting or as some sort of occult practice is not clear. Gwen seeks help for her from a kindly local doctor (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), but while he provides a bottle of medicine, he explains that she will need to pay for it, since his master, the local mine baron, is not a generous man.

In fact, Elen is in particular disfavor with him, since she is a hold-out against his effort to expand his empire by acquiring more land for his quarry. When the family’s sheep suddenly die and their potatoes spoil, it might be his work—or, alternatively, the result of some inexplicable malignant force. What’s clear is that as Elen’s malady becomes public, local hostility to her grows, despite the sympathy shown toward Gwen by one young man.

The escalating mini-war reaches a climax in a stunning act of brutality, an attack on the family’s home by a mob of torch-carrying locals, preceded by a direct assault on Elen that she and Gwen respond to with extreme prejudice. But as is noted at one point, if a man steals a loaf of bread they put him in jail, but if he steals a farm, they make him a lord; the conclusion of “Gwen” is depicted as inevitable, given the callousness of the time and place.

What most stands out in “Gwen” is the performance of Worthington-Cox, who gives Gwen a look of haunted desperation that is compelling throughout. Peake does good work, too, but in a distinctly subordinate role, and no one else in the cast really stands out.

The other exceptional element in the film is the visuals. Taken together Laura Ellis Cricks’ production design, the set decoration by Candice Marchlewski and Ellie Pash, Dinah Collin’s costumes and Adam Etherington’s cinematography create an ambience of darkness and dread that overlays the veneer of historical accuracy with a gothic sensibility. The backgrounds give the story a Dickensian feel in which Worthington-Cox, in particular, can shine.

And yet while one can respect much about “Gwen,” overall its dilatory pacing—courtesy of McGregor and his editor Mark Towns—italicizes the fact that the script is somewhat muddled and confused. Perhaps that is intended to reflect the title character’s state of mind, but it doesn’t make things any more accessible for a viewer.

One can therefore chalk the movie up with the old cliché—a promising but uneven debut.

THEM THAT FOLLOW

Producer: Bradley Gallo, Michael A. Helfant, Gerard Butler, Alan Siegel and Danielle Robinson
Director: Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage
Writer: Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage
Stars: Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Jim Galligan, Thomas MannKaitlyn Dever, Lewis Pullman, Annie Tedesco, Erik Andrews, Catherine Albers and Katherine Deboer
Studio: Greenwich Entertainment

C+

There may be no absolute rules of screenwriting, but one that comes close is never to have a character say to someone leaving after an argument, “You walk out that door, you don’t come back—you understand me?” Yet that’s precisely the cliché yelled by Lemuel (Walton Goggins), a preacher in a small community somewhere in the Appalachians, to his daughter Mara (Alice Englert) toward the end of Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage’s debut film.

But despite that depressing miscalculation, “Them That Follow” is an intrinsically interesting film for one basic reason: Lemuel’s congregation is a fundamentalist sect that applies literally the words of Mark 16:18 “They will take up snakes in their hands, and be unharmed.” The preacher at this little ramshackle church with the white neon cross out front is a snake-handler whose followers, including Mara, also raise the rattlers toward the rafters as a sign of their absolute commitment. Of course it’s a dangerous, potentially fatal, practice, which is why the community is tucked away far from the prying eyes of the law.

Among the congregants are laid-back shepherd Zeke and his ferocious wife Hope (Jim Gaffigan and Olivia Colman), but their son, affable Augie (Thomas Mann) has fallen away from the faith, if he ever had it. He and Mara have been best friends since childhood—a friendship that has deepened significantly over the years, as it turns out. But Lemuel has decided that his daughter’s hand will go to Garrett (Lewis Pullman), an intense young man whose dedication to the church appears to be unwavering.

The love triangle is at the center of what little plot there is. Mara has a secret, and when Augie finds out about it, he returns to the church to prove his faith in the prescribed way. Of course, it does not go well, and his parents and the rest of the congregation believe that only their prayers, combined with his own belief, can save him—a sentiment the suffering Augie does not share: he asks to be taken to a hospital, a sure sign he is not a true believer. Zeke and Hope ultimately reach the same conclusion, but perhaps too late. Meanwhile Garrett learns Mara’s secret, and does not handle the revelation well. It ruptures his relationship with Lemuel, and Mara finally takes a stand for herself; thus that misguided line of his.

“Them That Follows” presents a vision of a deeply insular world most viewers will barely understand, let alone sympathize with. But it doesn’t treat its characters contemptuously, and it boasts some powerful performances, particularly from Colman, who effortlessly dominates every scene she’s in (along with the other actors around her). Goggins, who also played a preacher, though of a very different stripe, on “Justified,” is as intense as ever, and Mann carries off his callow nice-boy persona effectively, as well as a prolonged suffering sequence that gives him the chance to show off a more dramatic side. Pullman makes a suitably unlikable sort. There are plenty of snakes, too, some hoisted into the air, others writhing in the sun or over people’s bodies. Their wranglers did a fine job.

As the central figure around whom the story swirls, Englert registers Mara’s generally submissive attitude effectively, but she’s hampered by the slow, gloomy approach favored by Poulson and Savage, along with their editor Joshua Raymond Lee, which keeps her mostly in so recessive a mode that it’s difficult to read her character emotionally. Kaitlyn Dever, as Mara’s sad, lonely friend Dilly, is rather more expressive. The bleak atmosphere of the stifling community is well captured in Carmen Navis’ drab production design and Brett Jutkiewicz’s slate-gray cinematography, while Garth Stevenson contributes an appropriately brooding score.

“Them That Follow”—a pretty clumsy title, both grammatically and in terms of conveying what the film is about—creates an absorbing portrait of a strange religious world, but stumbles in terms of narrative and pacing.