Nineteenth Century Wales, and in this countryside community Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) lives in a farmhouse with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and younger sister Mari (Jodi Innes), just the three of them there now the man of the house, Gwen's father, has gone off to war and has been away for some time now. Although the remaining family feel the strain, she tries to be upbeat and make time for play with her sister, though her mother disapproves of frivolity, especially when it comes at the expense of getting the dinner on the table in the evening. But there are outside forces pitting themselves against them, suspicious and superstitious ones, fuelled by big business...
You know those old Westerns where the homesteaders have to fight for survival against the interests of companies worth millions that want to secure their land and if waving money under the settlers' noses won't work, they will turn to more extreme methods to ensure they get their way? Well, imagine one of those set in Wales of over a century ago, and for the homesteaders there is no help anywhere to be seen for them, as the businesses clamp down on anything that might offer succour and control the opinions of the locals to manipulate them to believe the worst of the folks who are a thorn in the side of the company men - and they are men, make no mistake about that.
The matter that these are three female characters trying and struggling to stand up to the might of male supremacy would not be lost on the viewer, and that appeared to be an entirely conscious decision. Writer and director William McGregor, graduating to his debut feature after a few years of television episodes (he had helmed an instalment of His Dark Materials after this, for instance) was more than an "On your side, sisterhood!" bandwagon-jumper, as there was clearly a deeply felt sense of injustice that was not only present in the drama, but also intended to be brought out in the audience as well, so much so that many viewers found the experience, frankly, too gruelling.
There was an unforgiving quality about the starkness of the imagery, yes, the Welsh landscape could be very beautiful, but that was not perhaps uppermost in the minds of those involved with this film, as they used the hills and valleys in a manner that suggested anyone getting by here was doing so more by good fortune than any innate ability to survive, or even prosper, in those windswept and rain-lashed conditions. If you were not sympathetic to the overwhelmingly bleak atmosphere, Gwen could quickly look to be teetering on the edge of self-parody, as any smiles we saw here would be tinged with sadness or vanish from the faces when they remembered the dire situation they were in: practically the first scene has the heroine and her sibling's games interrupted by the sight of a nearby family wiped out from cholera.
Not a barrel of laughs, then, but if you liked to indulge yourself in a real miseryfest - and some people do - then this was the film for you as McGregor danced around horror movie visuals to underline how awful all this was, about as far from a Welsh Tourist Board advertisement as it was possible to get. Though Gwen represented a modernity in that she was reluctant, or outright refused, to take part in the savagely unsentimental activities that would ensure survival and was optimistic her family could continue to live in their cottage despite the outside world closing in with unstoppable and harshly affected power, the resolution was both open-ended and about as lacking in sentiment as the director could make it. If this comes across as perversely unenjoyable, McGregor had the benefit of Peake and Worthington-Cox's accomplished interplay which kept things compelling, a complex mother-daughter bond one wanted to strengthen with love and the other wanted to strengthen by toughening up her daughters. Music by James Edward Barker.