An isolated woman is haunted in Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men
Enys Men is the second feature film from Cornish director Mark Jenkin. After learning his craft making documentaries and music videos, 2019’s Bafta winning drama ‘Bait’ catapulted Jenkin onto the indie main stage, making the spooky Enys Men one of the most anticipated films playing at the BFI London Film Festival this year.
Enys Men (rocky island in Cornish) is set in 1973 and follows an unnamed woman played by Mary Woodvine, the sole occupant of a deserted island off the Cornish coast. Living in a rundown cottage she treks across the island each day to assess the growth of the local fauna and record them for some sort of ecological study. Her only contact with the outside world is to radio the mainland to get supplies delivered by boat every week or so. Surrounded by the remnants of a crumbling mine and memorials to vessels lost at sea, the only other inhabitants on this island are the ghosts of Cornwall’s past. (Perhaps quite literally, more on that later…)
Much like Bait, Enys Men is visually stunning. No one is making films the way Mark Jenkin does right now. Shot on a clockwork camera with 16mm film it looks like a vintage piece that’s been unearthed from someone’s shed or indeed the crumbling cottage featured in the film. Colours are incredibly vivid, capturing Woodvines red coat against the blues and greens of the Cornish Sea with a painterly quality. The film stock adds texture, making the lines on her face stand out with near 3D effect. The old camera used does not record sound meaning all sound effects and dialogue (the few lines there are) were recorded in post-production, creating a truly other worldly, slightly unnerving effect.
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Loosely marketed as a horror the plot is fairly scant, and the audience left to try and make sense of a series of nonsensical scenes. Mary sticks to a strict daily routine of going out to take ecological measurements, throwing a stone down the old mine shaft, returning home to make a pot of tea and then reading a book in bed by candlelight. Her total isolation makes time itself irrelevant as the only way to tell the passing of days is by her routine. Time dilates and contracts and there are moments that make you question what year it actually is, despite her writing ‘1973’ in her diary.
Her routine is increasingly disrupted by a series of disturbing encounters with what could be either hallucinations, ghosts or visceral memories. Some hint to be linked to her own past, whilst others appear to be references to Cornish history as a whole as she is stalked by 19th century tin miners, fishermen and folk singing women. There are elements of body horror as she starts to find lichen growing out of an old scar on her stomach.
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Unfortunately, Enys Men falls apart in the final 30 minutes. After a good chunk of time building an increasingly disturbing atmosphere whilst dropping what feels like clues to what it all means, it fails to come to a satisfying conclusion. Well, it fails to come to any sort of conclusion really as the pieces don’t add up and audiences are left to wonder what the hell it was all about. Despite only being 90 minutes, the film somehow feels interminably long, and I found it so mentally taxing it put me off watching anything else after it (a real annoyance when trying to tackle the 200 or so films of the BFI London Film Festival.)
Feeling like an experimental art film rather than a piece of drama, it is ultimately unsatisfying. Enys Men; the vibes are, as they say, immaculate. The story telling not so much.