FilmSpace at Edinburgh International Film Festival: Gwen; Robert the Bruce; What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

FilmSpace is at the 73rd Edinburgh Film Festival. Film critic Calum Cooper reviews William McGregor’s spine-chilling debut film, as well as another adaptation of the Robert the Bruce story, and a powerful documentary on film critic Pauline Kael.

Gwen – ★★★★★

William McGregor’s debut feature Gwen crawled its way under my skin and has refused to budge ever since I saw it. It drips with dread and haunts with themes and visuals alike. It’s possibly the most unsettling film I’ve seen at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. Luckily, it’s also one of the best.

Set in Wales during the Industrial Revolution, we meet a family living on a farm in the Snowdon valleys, where mist plagues the land and capitalism plagues the villagers. Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) is the eldest daughter, living with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and younger sister Mari (Jodie Innes). With her father away at war, Gwen has had to grow up quickly, taking on the responsibilities of the farm and caring for her sickly mother. They go into the nearby community every week for church, but otherwise keep themselves isolated.

One night, Gwen awakes to see a humanoid figure lurking outside the house. When she calls out, no one replies. But over the next few days, the crops begin rotting, the animals begin dying, and Elen only gets sicker, while the villagers begin turning on them. The film keeps its cards close to its chest, meaning we can only watch as Gwen adjusts herself to the sinister world around her and the horrors that have now come to her family.

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Atmosphere is the first word that comes to mind when I think of this film. There’s a relentless sense of uneasiness woven into its presentation. Gwen may be in a rapidly changing world, but she also lives in a dangerous one where the fear of the unknown is matched only by the fear of poverty. This is one of many elements the film utilises to blur the line between paranormal horror and human horror. We the audience are left in the dark on what is happening until the very end, meaning the seemingly supernatural decay of nature and the withering of compassion from the male elders of the town evoke the same level of trepidation.

Meanwhile, gothic visuals and elements of Paganism permeate the film, in a style reminiscent of Robert Egger’s grossly underrated The Witch. McGregor’s fascination with the Welsh landscape, and Welsh identity, add to the film’s icy grip, as nature and humanity deteriorate simultaneously around Gwen. Mountainous beauty is obscured by thick mist, and symbols of comfort, such as a church the family frequents, become hubs for fear and the all-consuming nature of capitalism and the patriarchy, of which the film suggests are directly tied. Even the muted colours of the costume design add to the literal and figural darkness being portrayed on screen, as our confusion and the characters’ fear become entwined.

At its core is a deeply human story, which is ultimately what makes the film so unnerving to me. It’s not the horror itself, but who it’s happening to. It builds its characters up superbly, while simultaneously exploring the complexities of the invaluable mother-daughter relationship, particularly one that is built on such shaky ground as the one between Gwen and Elen. Telling the story specifically from the view of a girl on the peak of womanhood only heightens the suspense with its added factor of youthful naivety being forced into a sinister world of avarice and superstition.

It’s a spellbinding debut that rips apart your emotional security with insidious, slow-burning precision.

Gwen is the best thing about her own film. She is an incredibly strong character, both narratively and mentally. She bears titanic burden daily, but she’s affectionate with her sister, pleasant with the townsfolk, and finds the suffering of animals unbearable. Although she lives in anxiety and fear, both from her strict mother and the transpiring events, she bottles it up and wears a brave face. It means that when the mask slips and she lets her anguish take over, it’s heart-breaking to watch. The character and her love-hate relationship with her mother is written very well by McGregor, but Eleanor Worthington-Cox is spectacular. She brings the character to life through a tremendous range of emotional restraint and nervous expressions that’s hiding as much terror as she’s showing. Maxine Peake is also wonderfully disturbing as Elen, but Worthington-Cox is so good that I can’t imagine the character being played as effectively by anyone else.

The end result is a film that slowly but surely digs its claws into you. It utilises horrifying concepts – both realistic and fantastical – to bring attention to themes of anti-capitalism and anti-patriarchy, all the while using its fascinating characters and their struggle to project said ideas. They terrifyingly merge with the film’s insistence on dread and atmospheric horror to keep us on our toes throughout the entirety of its runtime. Like the best mystery horrors, it never reveals its play until the last few minutes, amounting to not only a final image that burns into the mind, but a final line from Gwen that tragically completes her transition into adulthood.

Gwen is going to linger in my psyche long after this festival finishes. But that’s precisely the effect horror films should have on the cinemagoer. Via McGregor’s confident direction and Worthington-Cox’s star-making performance, the film mesmerises with its timely messages and shadowy cinematography, pessimistically reaffirming that the horrors of the paranormal are no scarier than the horrors of humankind. It’s a spellbinding debut that rips apart your emotional security with insidious, slow-burning precision, and I for one cannot wait to see what is next for all those involved. Now if you excuse me, I’m going to go curl up in a blanket and cry.

Robert the Bruce – ★★☆☆☆

Robert the Bruce is a film that I respect for what it was aiming to do. However, I don’t think it entirely works. There’s some strong performances, and impressive filmmaking. But I don’t think the angle the filmmakers were going for fully translates, making the film a dull affair overall.

Conceived as a sequel to Braveheart, the film takes place in 1306/7, during the winter when Robert the Bruce was in hiding and thus his whereabouts were not entirely known. Angus Macfadyen reprises his role as Robert the Bruce from Braveheart. He has taken the mantel from Wallace in the fight for Scottish Independence, and has even declared himself king. But he has retreated following numerous defeats, his morale at an all-time low. He finds himself bonding with a peasant family who, through their own strife and kinship, particularly that of the young son Scot (get it?), begin to reignite his passion for his country, and those who live in it.

What makes my disappointment all the more unfortunate is that I like this setup. Nobody knows what Robert the Bruce was really doing in this time frame, but something clearly rejigged his belief in Scottish Independence. It’s where the famous spider web myth comes from. The choice to have it be a peasant family who struggle with their own beliefs on Scottish Independence be the catalyst for Bruce’s own resurgence is one I’m on board with, as it tests Bruce’s loyalty to his people, which is even more important than country alone.

On paper, this sounds like good stuff. The general filmmaking around it certainly presents it in a visually vibrant style. Sweeping shots of the Scottish mountains caked in snow reveal the beauty of the landscape, while the actors all bring respectable ranges to their roles, whether faced with dilemmas or doubts. Although I do find the choice to re-cast Macfadyen off-putting, as good as he is, for he is now of an age older than when Robert the Bruce died. Nevertheless, there’s plenty to admire about the technical craft.

Instead of how this common Scottish family reawakened Bruce’s spirit, it comes across more like how Bruce mended this family, which feels counterproductive to what the film was aiming for.

My problem is that Robert the Bruce felt like a secondary character in his own film. The first half mainly consists of the troubles with the peasant family, which don’t feel as fleshed out as they could be. We do occasionally cut to what Bruce is up to. Yet so much of it is repetitive running and hiding, and maybe a fight or two, that by the time Bruce finally does meet this family at the half-way point we feel like we’ve already sat through a whole film’s worth of time. Even then Bruce has so little to do both prior to and after meeting this family that his inclusion starts to feel arbitrary.

The family consists of mother Morag (Anna Hutchinson, who steals the film), uncle Carney (Brandon Lessard), and, children Iver and Scot (played by actual brother and sister Talitha and Gabriel Bateman). While I thought their dynamic was generally solid, they took up so much screen-time that Bruce, the titular character, felt side-lined. Instead of how this common Scottish family reawakened Bruce’s spirit, it comes across more like how Bruce mended this family, which feels counterproductive to what the film was aiming for.

Also, calling the film a sequel to Braveheart I feel does more harm than good. You hear Braveheart and you think grand battles and rallying cries of freedom. That’s not what this film is like. It’s much more subdued and character driven (albeit the wrong characters). That doesn’t make the film inherently bad – on the contrary, it’s arguably refreshing – but it seems strange to link it to a film that’s so fundamentally different despite similar subject matters. Although, I think the film could’ve seriously used a battle scene in the end, so that it could show Bruce’s growth rather than simply talk about it. Maybe my entitled history student side is talking right now, but it’s a bit ridiculous that we’ve now had two Robert the Bruce films in less than a year and neither have featured Bannockburn.

Perhaps I went in with the wrong expectations on what kind of film I was getting, as I do think there’s an audience to be found here. But the film sadly didn’t do much for me. On press tours, Macfadyen talked about how he hoped the film would boost support for today’s Scottish Independence campaign, which it may well do for select individuals. Personally though, I don’t need a film to argue a case for independence when Boris Johnson is now poised to win Downing Street.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael – ★★★★☆

Before Mark Kermode, and before Roger Ebert, there was Pauline Kael, a woman who was stubborn, strong-willed, and a force to be reckoned with. Yet she fundamentally shaped the world of film criticism at its core. I would even argue that she is the single most important person in the history of film criticism. Which is why I’m pleased to say that this insightful, entertaining documentary does justice to Kael the same way 2014’s Life Itself did to Ebert.

As the documentary reveals, Kael stumbled into film criticism virtually by accident. She originally dabbled in play writing and experimental filmmaking, leading a rather bohemian lifestyle in between. But then, in 1952, she was overheard arguing with her friends about why Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight sucked. The eavesdropper was an editor for City Lights, who gave Kael her first shot at a film review. From there the film follows Kael throughout her career as her polarising opinions but unparalleled passion became wider known.

What makes the documentary so engaging isn’t just its clever editing and informed narration. It’s how well it deconstructs the image of Kael into one newcomers to her work can identify with. Even if you’re not an aspiring critic or filmmaker, Kael makes for such a fascinating subject matter because of the way she viewed film. Drawing in both ire and admiration, she made film criticism accessible to younger generations and was always concrete in her beliefs when held up for scrutiny. Roger Ebert famously said that she had “no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards. You couldn't apply her 'approach' to a film. With her it was all personal."

This is very much true when you look at any one of her reviews. She puts all of her emotions on the page for us to bear witness to, her awestruck love or furious loathing playing into her analytical abilities beautifully. When sharing her enthusiasm for The Godfather she talked about how the evils of a frail old man like Vito Corleono is scarier than any monster we can conjure in our heads because of the humanity that has since been lost, and the way she writes it still sends shivers down my spine it’s so articulately expressed. The documentary has Sarah Jessica Parker reading snippets of Kael’s reviews throughout, showing us just what artistry Kael was capable of in her prime.

It’s directed with sincere empathy and admiration for Kael, peeling back the layers to reveal what kind of person she was, and why that person, however flawed, was precisely what film criticism needed.

But what makes Kael even more interesting for those new to her was how divisive her views could be, something the film graciously does not refrain from showcasing. For example, she saw a work of art in the critically reviled Last Tango in Paris, but saw films like Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia as rubbish. But, as the documentary beautifully portrays, it was Kael’s writing, and her ability to convey feeling that made her reviews so absorbing. Even if you don’t agree with what she’s saying, she expresses her opinions and analytical readings so eloquently that it’s impossible not to get lost in the weight of her words. And she never held back either, making her writing all the more intoxicating. I imagine waiting for her verdict back then was like waiting for an incoming napalm strike.

Yet what ultimately makes the documentary so good is that it never forgets about the human being behind the controversial image. It’s directed with sincere empathy and admiration for Kael, peeling back the layers to reveal what kind of person she was, and why that person, however flawed, was precisely what film criticism needed. As Brie Larson rightfully pointed out, film reviewing was, and unfortunately still is, a male dominated profession. Thus, the documentary shows us how Kael was able to take all her strife and hardships, and combine them with her raw tenacity to not only make her voice stand out among the ocean of repetitive male opinions, but make her voice influence and reconstruct the very essence of what being a critic is.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a terrific documentary that deepens our understanding of Kael as a person, and as one of if not the key pioneer for film criticism. It paints a wonderful picture of who Kael was as a person, how she shaped film criticism, and how she still remains important to this day. So much so that a part of me would love to see how Kael would’ve reacted to some of the irritatingly regressive film reviewers you find on YouTube (e.g. Jeremy Jahns, Doug Walker, or the bane of my existence CinemaSins). Nonetheless, it brings Kael and her work to light for a new generation, and made me want to re-watch cinema through her eyes. Whether you are a staunch supporter of Kael’s or not, I don’t think anyone who sees this documentary can walk away denying the impact Kael made, and continues to make, on the world of film.

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