I’ve been thinking more about modern Welsh Gothic recently and want to re-watch the BBC’s 6-part mini-series REQUIEM on Netflix (still there as of 19/09/2020) which plays with the tropes and atmosphere so well.
Comments on the series are somewhat divided between loving it/loathing it, and I’m not going to discuss whether or not it’s a good/well-acted/well-written show here, just highlight the ways it can be classed as Welsh Gothic. This will probably end up as a short series of posts that highlight different tropes and aspects that the show – and other recent releases – use, and to consider what modern Welsh Gothic looks like or could look like.
A quick note on terminology: Welsh Gothic does not have to be written by Welsh writers – there is a broad definition for it, but it should be set in Wales and, in my opinion (which is a little narrower than other views) it should touch on at least one Welsh-specific issue or theme. I’d consider films like House of the Long Shadows to be Welsh Gothic if inadvertently: in this film’s case, it engages uncritically with, and perpetuates, the Barbaric Backwards Welsh discourse. I’ve discussed this in a previous post and linked to other reviews that note the same issues.
REQUIEM is an example of Welsh Gothic not created/written by a Welsh-identifying person. It was created and written by Kris Mrksa with additional screenwriting credits going to Blake Ayshford, and directed by Mahalia Belio, but filmed in Wales and supported by Welsh Government funding.
It was shot on location at Cefn Tilla Court, Monmouthshire, Newport (South-East Wales), and Dolgellau, Gwynedd. It features an Australian character (as you would expect from the screenwriters’ credentials) and has a nuanced approach to insiders vs outsiders, playing down some themes that appear in earlier Welsh Gothic.
In Requiem, the danger comes from within the community itself, and there is an alliance and a conspiracy between the mixed residents of the village (English, Welsh, and the token Australian) and there is a lot of ambiguity around the identity of the protagonist herself who occupies a strange kind of liminal space throughout the series.
One thing I loved about it was the setting: the landscape does an awful lot of the work in creating the atmosphere, so let’s talk about the setting for a moment.
Welsh Gothic: Imprisoned by the Landscape
The sense of isolation and oppression is created not just by the script or the direction (both of which I personally liked) but by the choice to set the action in a small town surrounded by thickly wooded hills. The creeping sense of unease stems not only from the fact you don’t know what’s in the woods. It comes from the fact the woods are so obviously desolate, and yet inescapable. Whatever is going on in woods like these, or on the bare mountains, or even in the valley itself: all of that must remain unseen. You know something’s wrong, but no one talks about it. You know there’s something, but it’s invisible, or just out of sight. There is only the mundane, the everyday, the ordinary. And yet, there is something wrong. Thus the woods are an uncanny site of anxiety, so familiar and so ancient, and yet deeply concerning.
There is a children’s park in the series that is overlooked by these trees, and it reminds me strongly of one where I grew up. You are overlooked by the wooded hills all around you and they are largely empty. You know there are walkers, bikers, ramblers, dogs, animals, birds, all that. But you sit on the swings and realise you are completely alone. It just… doesn’t feel as if you are. The best way I can describe it is… knowing you are being watched by nothing at all.
I hoped that the reveal at the end would be similarly intangible – that is the difficulty with horror and mystery, as the writers of the horror podcast The Magnus Archives acknowledged in their Q&A at the end of Season 1. There needs to be enough of a reveal to satisfy the audience as regards the mystery, but to reveal everything subtracts from the horror and can take away its power to horrify or scare. A balance has to be found and maintained, so that the suspense isn’t completely destroyed but the mystery is wrapped up to a reasonable degree of satisfaction.
[I personally enjoyed the conclusion and the ending of Requiem. I’ll try not to spoil it, but I will talk a little bit more about the concepts that get us there because they kind of align with Welsh Gothic themes.]
The theme of dispassionate, uncanny landscape is not exclusive to Wales, but if you’re writing Welsh Gothic the landscape can become more than a setting, and almost a character in its own right, in the way that the urban location can be a character in Urban Fantasy. In film this is easy to do because you point a camera at it and it does it all by itself. In writing, one might argue that you have to appreciate how it feels in order to get that on-page, and that can be a bit more difficult when you haven’t experienced the kind of uncanny feeling it creates before.
Another 2018 release that does this is the period film Apostle, where the imprisonment of the characters is literal in several senses (to specify how would be spoiler-y). Set on a [fictional] remote Welsh island, it was written and directed by Welsh filmmaker Gareth Huw Evans and starred Welsh actor Michael Sheen as the on-screen-Welsh cult leader. The film was largely shot on a set built at Margam Park, also home to Margam Castle which is Gothic par excellence all by itself but doesn’t feature in the film.
While once the imprisonment of peoples was reflected by texts about entrapment by industry, in particular by the mines and the spectre of their unhealthy legacy, Apostle and Requiem are examples of how modern post-industrial Welsh Gothic still reflects anxieties of entrapment. Even the noir crime drama series Hinterland plays on these themes, with claustrophobic shots and a sense of isolation pervading the scenes, creating an atmosphere of bleakness despite the landscape being more open, rural and coastal.
Other sites of entrapment and confinement could equally be urban spaces or council estates, or farms and the daily struggles within the agricultural industry. Yet in all this, the landscape is never far away – the lakes are deep and still, the rivers are merciless and fast, the hills are present and brooding, the trees grow thickly in silence around the fields and sprawling concrete, and from all around, the land watches.
The Welsh Gothic series of posts, a contextualised summary of Jane Aaron’s book Welsh Gothic (UWP, 2013), are listed here.