Following his acclaimed feature debut Bait, Cornish-born director Mark Jenkin returns with a haunting, enigmatic folk horror. Whereas Bait was a lament for a way of life swallowed up by mindless urbanite tourism, Enys Men is a hymn to sublime, endless time and the hauntedness of existence.
Where does one begin reviewing a film like Enys Men? Jenkin’s second feature has a plot – a pretty straightforward one at that – and when one is stuck that’s usually a good place to start. But plot is too prosaic a place to start with a work so richly textured, so poetical, to frame it in terms of causal events: this is a film about the rich soil of myth, not the dead branches of plot mechanics. But if I must touch briefly on such things, in 1973 a woman (Mary Woodvine) is conducting research on an uninhabited island off the coast of Cornwall, noting the development of wildflowers on a cliffside.
As her research continues, strange occurrences haunt her. A young girl (Flo Crowe) appears in the cottage. She talks to her as if she is her daughter but both share a scar on their torsos. Could they are be same woman at difference points in time? Radio broadcasts refer to the mysterious pointed stone structure that appears at disappears at one end of the island. Could this be one of the titular ‘Enys Men’”‘ (Cornish for ‘stone island’)? After she discovers part of the wreckage of an old lifeboat, she starts to see figures from the past: a group of women, a preacher, a lifeboat skipper.
Gradually, like some mid-century science fiction novel, lichen begin to invade the woman’s sanctuary. First the flowers are infected. Then, other things succumb. Jenkin’s trademark aesthetics bring elemental uncanniness to the film, such as the sound design with its deliberately conspicuous foley work and ADR, while on 16mm colour film the red of the woman’s coat glows unearthly scarlet – like the filaments of the flowers – against the terrestrial tones of the grass and stone.
The woman at once does and does not belong on the island, daily peering into a deep well, dropping rocks into it, daring it to swallow her. As with all horror, the space that Jenkin conjures is fundamentally psychological: when he taps into our shared cultural memory it is like he is hitting a tuning fork against a thousand years of mythology. There is deep magic here, and deeper still are harmonies felt more than heard; closer to the surface we can make out King Lear, John Wyndham, The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now, Ben Wheatley, Dear Esther.
Where Bait was immediate and acerbic in its politics, Enys Men is lyrical and sublime, enigmatic and haunting. Though it is arguably no less political in its assertion of the dominance of landscape and time over human interlopers. Meanwhile, it’s now two for two for Mark Jenkin, who – if not already – is fast becoming the UK’s most vital filmmaker.