‘After you’ve taken everything, what will be left?’: Gwledd Confronts Wales’ Past, Present and Future’
Film Hub Wales commissioned freelance writer and researcher Rosie Couch to write about the political messages at the heart of Gwledd. Read about how the film uses folk horror to talk about Wales’ holiday-home housing crisis, climate change and women’s connections to nature.
As the opening credits of Lee Haven-Jones’ Gwledd unfurl, the evocative sound of birdsong is quickly interrupted by mechanical jolting and grinding. A machine is drilling the land. It is abrasive; it is messy. The noise builds, transforming into an insufferably shrill ringing. Ear-splitting, you might say. As if we are sitting there cross-legged in the grass, we watch a man as he staggers and falls, face bloodied. There is a lot of advice out there about how you should begin a narrative, exactly what that first line should do. The first sentence should shock, it should engage its audience, it should encapsulate the themes of the narrative as a whole. As Gwledd’s first sentence, this opening sequence succeeds in all of the above.
At their ‘retreat’ from their busy lives in London, a family (featuring Nia Roberts, Steffan Cennydd and others) are preparing for an important dinner. They will be hosting the businessman (Julian Lewis Jones) who has been drilling their land for resources, as well as the owner of nearby land. Over the course of the evening, they will seek to persuade their neighbour to give their property over for excavation. Cadi, played meticulously by actress Annes Elwy, is hired as a waitress and is enigmatic from the outset. From course to course, she begins to wreak havoc on the grandiose affair, taking on the family and guests one by one. This pattern – in which a mysterious stranger arrives and pokes at barely concealed conflicts, disrupting the coherence of the family unit – is not necessarily novel.
Gwledd’s particular brand of violence is timely in its representation, a veritable banquet for those who feel the Welsh media does not engage with the concerns of Welsh people, as those concerns unfold all around us. Despite these clear points of reference, Gwledd should not just be seen as a Welsh film for Welsh people. The generic lens of folk horror proffers important questions for a range of spectators. As with all genres, the trappings of folk horror are slippery. Folk horror can be broadly characterised through the thematics of invasion, conflict, and tradition versus modernity. We are often, though not always, aligned with the invading group, subject to the ‘horrific’ elements and practices of the community into which they have arrived.
Reading Gwledd against this context, we might ask:
who is trespassing – the strange woman who arrives to the home with questionable intentions or the family who insist on greedily pillaging the landscape, before encouraging their neighbours to follow suit? Are Cadi’s actions justified? Who, ultimately, is Gwledd’s leading purveyor of violence?
With Cadi, a young woman who is possessed by a folkloric feminine entity, previously at rest within the land, Gwledd breathes new life into this particular narrative framework. Cadi’s revenge is personal, political and historical in increments, and all at once.
A 2022 publication from the Senedd titled ‘If we continue like this, there’s not going to be a community left’ eerily echoes the question posed by Gwledd’s final chapter: ‘After you’ve taken everything, what will be left?’. This is no coincidence. Gwledd’s release comes as Wales grapples with the influx of second homes pushing people out of their local communities. As recently as July 2022, activists occupied Aberpergwm mine, near Glynneath, Neath Port Talbot to protest the Welsh Government’s silence on approval being given for forty million tonnes of coal to be extracted from the site. I could go on but the above events will not be news to anyone engaged with Welsh politics.
Watching Annes Elwy’s striking performance builds Cadi’s characterisation from her deer-in-headlights entrance to intense cacophony – watching her face split into a smile for the first time is a particular highlight – is an immense source of pleasure and intrigue for spectators. Her effect on the family, the power that she holds over them and her eventual revenge proffer especially offer dynamic points of identification.
Here, generic underpinnings of folk horror are subverted as the ‘Other’ is simultaneously trespasser and trespassed upon. The violence that she doles out is undoubtedly made more of an explicit spectacle than that enacted by the family. While Cadi’s actions are presented as the most obviously ‘horrific’ – bloody and gory and, in places, absolutely stomach-turning – the systemic violence enacted by the family is profound and far-reaching in comparison. Gwledd’s subversion of the trappings of folklore within the context of Welsh politics provides food for thought to Welsh and non-Welsh spectators alike.
In chapter four of the film, ‘Dyw hi ddim fod cael ei deffro’ (‘She Mustn’t be Awakened’), discourses on trespassing are condensed and refocused within the context of art and Wales. A large abstract painting hangs on the wall of the family’s kitchen/dining space.
As Glenda stands before the painting with her neighbour Mair, she provides a commentary on what strangers who visit the home see in its composition. These ‘grand themes’ include hope and love. For Glenda, the painting – which actually depicts the land that she inherited – represents the money that they’ve gained from allowing the land to be mined and their subsequent lavish holiday. For me, this sequence points to the question: How is Wales (and Welshness) used in contemporary visual culture? There are, of course, the stereotypes of Welshness that are constructed and proliferated through contemporary media.
In his 2020 article for Nation Cymru, ‘A lack of positive portrayals of Welsh life on TV may explain why we take comedies so seriously’, David Rees describes the backlash against television series such as Gavin and Stacey:
‘the consensus seems to be that they show a lack of respect for Wales and the Welsh in order to use them as the butt of, rather than included in, the joke, relying on stereotypes portraying poor and feckless working-class idiots that generally belittles Wales into a laughing stock that the rest of the UK can enjoy at our expense’.
Rees continues to emphasise the importance of positive – or at the very least non-stereotypical – representations of Welshness when he states that it is ‘extremely easy to think your existence is being disregarded as nothing worth verification by our society if you cannot see yourself reflected in it’. The analogy of the painting provokes us to think further about the use of Wales as a filming location for media that carries no meaningful connection to the country. When we watch the outcome of these productions, Clash of the Titans (2010) or Infinite (2021) for example, how is the land used? Would I recognise my Newport Road home in the action-packed scenes of Infinite? Does Dinorwic quarry of Gwynedd serve as anything more than a majestic backdrop for the action of Clash of the Titans? When the creators of these high-budget films survey their end product, I wonder what it is that they see? Is it hope, love or something else?
The tension described here extends to discussions of English productions utilising the beauty of the Welsh countryside for purely aesthetic reasons, for what they feel that the landscape might represent for their story, while maintaining no sustained engagement with Wales and Welshness. This particular mode of exploitation is mirrored through the family’s use of their second home as a sanctuary from their ‘real’ hectic lives in London. Their means of pursuing rest are insular and nonsensical when set amidst the surrounding scenery. Gweirydd, their son, cycles on a static bike, while Glenda relaxes in a purpose-built room lined with dark tiles and lit from above by a small cleft of light. Their sparse, grey home is antithetical to the landscape, as if it has been lifted from a city and dropped amidst the Welsh hillside. This particular juxtaposition, and the family’s indifference to their surroundings, echoes the movement of individuals from English cities and towns to rural Wales, with housing prices driven up and communities driven out in the process.
Gwledd constitutes a blood-soaked striking back against the kinds of greed and modernity encapsulated through Glenda’s smug discourse on the painting, advocating for the preservation of a Welsh identity that is rooted in history, myth and tradition. And, there is no doubt these focuses are important. At the very least, it is important to remember what has passed. History has a habit of repeating itself. That being said, I do wonder whether the kinds of histories privileged by Gwledd are the most productive when thinking about contemporary Welsh identity and the future of Wales. No space is allowed to critique the motivation behind Cadi’s revenge – and, in my view, rightly so. The family’s ‘punishments’ are also particularly revealing: Cadi coaxes Gwyn into deafening himself and provokes Gweirydd into amputating his brother’s leg with an axe. Just after, in a surprising reimagining of the vagina dentata myth, a well-placed shard of glass maims Gweirydd when they have sex in the woods. Glenda’s fate takes on a different form as she sees, before seeming to transform into, her late mother.
So, after they’ve taken everything, what is left of the family? A self-mutilating Welshness. A Welshness condemned to the past.
So, how do these fates and their thematic underpinnings marry up with Cadi as a possessed figure, enacting the wishes of a feminine spirit, perhaps even ‘Mother Nature’ herself? Is this not also a formation of Welshness that belongs to the past and to the land that should – as Gwledd suggests throughout – remain undisturbed? Cadi’s lack of voice throughout the narrative reinforces this conflict, particularly as she is most vocal when singing Welsh songs. When Glenda recognises the song as one sung by her mother, the mother that she turns into when Cadi takes revenge, how does this position Cadi’s form of power? As a possessed woman, how much agency does Cadi really have?
In my view, to think of Cadi as possessed by ‘Mother Nature’, and the fate of the family as nature’s revenge, is to fail to consider the underlying essentialism of such a construction. Woman’s affinity with nature is a vexed issue. For some, the idea that woman and nature are both subject to the same modes of oppression hits a point of identification. For others, myself included, the idea of a shared oppression on the grounds that both woman and ‘Mother Nature’ are inherently nurturing – caretakers of the land – is by no means progressive. For Cadi to have been possessed by her personal vendetta alone – in a way that ties in with Welsh cultural and political issues – would not only have avoided such essentialist ties, it would also have allowed the ending to veer away from its current overreliance on exposition.
I hope that Gwledd makes way for more Welsh filmmakers to create films so imbued with the political and cultural concerns of Welsh people. I also hope that, when we watch those films, we see depictions of Welsh femininity move beyond the mythic.