The title of Mark Jenkin’s elegant psychological drama, Enys Men, is Cornish for Stone Island, a reference to the isolated landscape where a woman identified in the credits only as the Volunteer (Mary Woodvine) lives alone in a vine-covered cottage. A monolithic stone nearby, in a roughly human shape and framed in the gateway to the cottage, alludes to the island legend that Jenkin has said he learned in childhood, of girls turned to stone for singing on the Sabbath. Despite its touches of folk horror, though, the film’s ambience is more haunting than terrifying. Past and present are fluid and the woman’s memory and imagination summon people who could not possibly be there. Defying any logical narrative, the film relies on poetic images and associations. It suggests that the most frightening thing in the world can be in your own mind.  

Every day, the woman checks a small clump of flowers growing among the rocks and inspects the soil around them, then drops a stone in an old mine shaft. She records the results by pencil in a ledger, in a long list of “No change.” The date in the ledger tells us it is 1973, the very year The Wicker Man was released, an obvious touchstone for a film rooted in the pagan history of a remote island. The date also explains why a crackly short-wave radio is her only means of communicating with the outside world. There is no other human in sight — that is, until she begins seeing people from the past, the island’s and her own. The film’s depiction of extreme isolation and its effect on the mind evoke Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, but with even less of a narrative.

Enys Men

The Bottom Line

Elusive yet entrancing.

Release date: Friday, March 31
Cast: Mary Woodvine, Edward Rowe, Flo Crowe, John Woodvine
Director and writer: Mark Jenkin

1 hour 31 minutes

Enys Men arrives after festival runs including the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes and the New York and London film festivals. Before that, Jenkin made a mini-splash with his 2019 film Bait, winner of the BAFTA for outstanding British debut, only now getting a U.S. release. As he did in Bait, here Jenkin writes, shoots, edits and does the soundscape, with an aesthetic and method of filming that are as central as any story.

He creates a deliberately retro look for Enys Men, reflecting the 1970s. The film was shot in 16 mm and boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, using a hand-cranked Bolex camera. The saturated colors capture the bright sea and gray cliffs, with bright pops of red from the woman’s slicker and the barely functioning generator that keeps the cottage’s lights on. The sounds are also essential, with a low humming or wind noise that Jenkin creates on a synthesizer. That handcrafted feel perfectly suits the restricted, hermetic world he creates.  

The style is full of close-ups, on the woman’s boots, on the rocks, and on Woodvine’s always placid face. She moves in an unhurried manner and, ominously, tends to ignore messages from the radio. Halfway through, just when her routine begins to feel too repetitive, she notices that lichen has begun to grow on one of the flowers — a gong sound registers this as a dramatic event — and more visions begin to appear. A man in a yellow raincoat visits from a supply boat, although she has previously found that same jacket floating in the sea, and the boat he is from seems to be one that was shipwrecked in 1897. She has even discovered a fragment of the boat’s name from its hull and placed it on her mantel.

Memory, imagination and reality blur. A young woman who seems to be the Volunteer’s younger self appears in the cottage, asleep in bed and more often standing on the roof. There is a hint to her identity only late in the film, when we see a gash on the young woman resembling a scar on the Volunteer. After lichen begins growing on the flowers, lichen also begins growing on the Volunteer’s scar.

Maybe the body-lichen is “real” in the film’s fictional world, or maybe she’s imagining it. Jenkin doesn’t even allow us to know definitively if this is really a ghost story or not. Events are seen almost entirely from the woman’s point of view, but not always. What are we to make of a scene in which she faces the camera, but behind her back a group of women from the past — the same as the Seven Maids on the label of her powdered milk package — stand watching her? The century these figures come from isn’t specifically defined either. What is clear is that the past is surfacing in the Volunteer’s mind, as if she is being subsumed by nature and the island itself.

It may take a second viewing to appreciate how intricately Jenkin has layered the film. The Volunteer reads by candlelight at night, always the same small book, A Blueprint for Survival (an actual book Jenkin found). Many of the visions from the past are juxtaposed with that reading, including a more-or-less 19th century pastor who gives a fiery sermon. A miner from the past reads the book while sitting on the toilet in the cottage, then calmly pulls up his pants and walks out the door (the one flash of wit in Enys Men).

All this is absorbing even when it is unclear, as the aesthetic pull and rhythm of the film make up for any confusion. Anyone looking for answers or clarity will probably flee the film early, but it rewards multiple viewings for anyone willing to engage with it.

Earlier this year, Jenkin curated a season at the British Film Institute, and an essay accompanying it begins with a quote from Robert Bresson that perfectly describes what he has done to such stunning effect in Enys Men: “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it.”

Caryn James

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