Enys Men (2022) directed by Mark Jenkins.
BFI Blu Ray 2023.
Firstly, the title Enys Men, the men is pronounced “mane” and the two words mean a stone island in Cornwall. And on this island a Menhir is a standing stone dating from the Bronze Age. It might be part of some core explanation for the happenings in Mark Jenkin’s 91-minute film poem: or simply a teasing folklorist clue of sorts. Near the end of Enys Men, the stone is moved so as to block the front door of a cottage. Or was that just another imagining of its only occupant? – a volunteer / botanist who has been recording the growth of a rare flower on a rocky outcrop. The stones’ abrupt displacement is one of frequent, though it has to be admitted, minimalist, scary moments in a film that’s being labelled as folk horror. I’d prefer to side-step the label horror and call Enfys Men a folk mystery.
During her sojourn the volunteer (A riveting performance from Mary Woodvine) is buffeted through a state of uneasy isolation. Her daily routine becomes a ritual and protective shield against her hallucinations. She keeps her journal on the flower’s progress; regularly starts up the cottage generator; every morning she drops a stone into the pit-hole of the island’s abandoned mine and attempts to keep contact with the mainland with her short-wave radio and receiver. The time is 1973. However, the film slips in and out of different time zones. These zones concern the volunteer’s past (Is the weird appearance of a teenage girl actually her or her daughter?) The time of an island tragedy involving men in a flooded mine. The Victorian time of the victims of a lifeboat disaster (A preacher keeps appearing to honour the dead.) and the brooding sense of time future, or maybe even time past, yet treated as pre-cognition of the drowning of the boatman who delivered supplies to the island.
There’s no linear storyline in Enys Men and only a small amount of dialogue. What we get are incidents or happenings accompanied by shots of the island’s natural beauty. Through Mark Jenkin’s incisive editing a poetic rhythm is created and admirably sustained. In the gripping Enys Men we could be going everywhere and yet nowhere. It’s each viewer’s succumbing to the atmosphere of this consciously enigmatic film that matters not the solution of a mystery.
The arrival of the boatman belongs to the late spring of 1973 and at one point makes for a brief erotic encounter with the volunteer. More disquieting is an odd scene where she is disturbed by the boatman after just watching him leave the toilet. As for the young girl, her connection to the volunteer is an injury. The girl falls from the roof of the cottage and her stomach is cut. The volunteer is infected by lichen growing just above her navel: occurring after she notices lichen on the wildflower. Overlaid on their sketched narrative are the island’s psychic remains of the long-gone community: an eerie depository of misfortune manifesting itself to all who spend too much time alone on Enys Men. On bringing your own disturbing past memories they can act as a catalyst to awaken such forces of guilt, fear and needed redemption.
Mark Jenkins is cine-literate and aware that, like him, his audiences will be aware of Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man, The Witch, Blood on Satan’s Claw and the 70’s BBC TV adaptations of M. R. James. Yet the feel and style of those films is more unconsciously back-grounded rather than imitated: though I wouldn’t want to confine Jenkins to the influence of the folk horror genre. In his first feature Bait (2019) it was not only the 1930s British documentaries of John Grierson that he was lovingly evoking but for me the now almost forgotten cinema of Robert J. Flaherty. Flaherty’s classic documentary Man of Aran (1934), with its powerful depiction of the land and moods of the sea, fed effortlessly into Bait and now Enys Men.
Enys Men is a disquieting, abstract and obliquely rendered experience. Yet apart from its highly focussed direction and mood, aided by Jenkin’s sound-scope score, what keeps Enys Men dramatically involving is the casting of Mary Woodvine. She cunningly appears to know more than she’s ever going to reveal. Guarded, vulnerable, secretive, and yet genuinely perplexed by events Woodvine draws us into her loneliness and isolation. She conveys part mental disturbance of character and part anxiety of supernatural visitations superbly well.
I doubt if 2023 will see a more visually beautiful British film than Enys Men. It’s a remarkable advance on Bait and confirms Jenkins to be a powerful poetic filmmaker.
Folk-horror-SF-ghost story-metaphysical mystery maybe? I will allow myself to stretch out the definition of his achievement. However you categorise the remarkable Enys Men it demands to be seen, investigated but satisfyingly not fully solved.
Postscript: This review was written after my first big screen viewing of Enfys Men. Second time round, watching the newly released Blu-Ray, my admiration for the film has increased. What’s so compelling is Jenkin’s soundtrack. Jenkin opted not for naturalistic sound but to abstract the natural and make Enfys Men even more allusive and mysterious. The Blu-Ray contains a fascinating 86-minute discussion between Mark Jenkin and Peter Strickland (Director of Berberian Sound Studio – a 2012 horror film about working on the soundtrack of a gory Italian gialo film). Jenkin speaks of enjoying the process of creating a soundtrack more than actual directing. Other extras include the short documentary The Duchy of Cornwall (1938, 15mins) with evocative footage of prehistoric remains and the then Cornish fishing industry. Apart from the posh, upper middle-class narrator and at the end a Cornishman reading a creaky, Pam Ayres-like poem, about Cornish life and customs, the short is appealing. More interesting though is Haunters of the Deep (1984, 61mins) a Children’s Film Foundation Film about the ghosts of Victorian miners confronting two children as they search for a father and brother trapped in a coastal tin-mine about to be flooded by the ocean. Decades later Jenkin was inspired by the film’s spooks to create his own even spookier apparitions in Enfy’s Men.