Synopsis: Set in 1973 on an uninhabited island off the Cornish coast, a wildlife volunteer’s daily observations of a rare flower turn into a metaphysical journey that forces her, as well as the viewer, to question what is real and what is a nightmare.
Stars: Mary Woodvine, Edward Rowe, Flo Crowe, John Woodvine
Director: Mark Jenkin
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Read too much about a film beforehand, and you’ll likely form an unconscious opinion about it before seeing one frame. As much as we may try to remain objective, it’s challenging to put preconceived notions out of our heads, and it’s one of a number of reasons I’ve been working hard to go into as many movies as blind as possible. This leads to a full disclosure I’ll share with you now. A friend had told me about Enys Men before it came my way, and, the filmmaker being new to me, I did a little more digging under the surface of it beforehand than I had intended. This wound up getting me into the mindset that this extremely indie folk horror from the United Kingdom would be a much more difficult experience than it was.
In his 2019 debut film Bait, director Mark Jenkin used a hand-operated camera for his shot on 16mm feature that was set off an island in Cornwall. The story’s gritty realism and the film’s washed-out visuals singled to the community that Jenkin was a filmmaker to watch. He’s back with another 16mm-shot tale set on the Cornish coastline, but this time it’s a far less accessible yarn that requires the audience to do much of the heavy lifting. What appears impenetrable, though, is slowly revealed to have purpose and form as a reward to those who take the time to put Jenkin’s many snarled puzzle pieces together.
Following a woman identified in the end credits as The Volunteer (Mary Woodvine) through a daily routine of tasks on the tiny island centered on an essential piece of its flora, the repetition is about to become numbing when a variation is introduced that changes the experience from the viewer and The Volunteer. This change in order has a trickle-down effect that seems to awaken parts of the island long dormant, hinting at a deadly history time had nearly washed away. While The Volunteer attempts to right her system of habit and a psyche becoming untenable, we witness some horrors brought forth to… I’m not sure. Stop her? Help her? Comfort her? It can be hard to tell in various passages. Still, Jenkin has an evident talent for creating a sense of foreboding that may (or may not) come. The eventual uneasiness with her solitude becomes claustrophobic, even with an entire island at her disposal.
Using an older hand-held camera and the smaller frame film stock creates a surprisingly dazzling look for Enys Men. Yes, it’s not HDR friendly with everything smooth and clean, but I loved that Jenkin’s film felt like you just found it lying in a box in your attic and are watching it for the first time in fifty years. He’s cast the film exceptionally well, too, with Woodvine being nigh-perfect as The Volunteer. His camera loves her leathery, weather-worn face and piercing eyes, and they’ll likely haunt you long after the film has concluded.
Enys Men (Cornish for ‘Stone Island’ and pronounced ‘Ennis Main,’ even pronouncing the title is a mind-swirl) will not be for everyone. It’s a particular type of film that hovers between experimental, arthouse, and faux nature documentaries. It most definitely isn’t easy to recommend to just anyone. For the right people, risk-takers up for something different without needing to ask many questions when the lights come up, this could be a stunning discovery.