Enys Men

Enys Men (2022)

Enys Men first published by VODzilla.co, 8 May 2023

1973 represents a key moment in the annals of British genre cinema. For it is the year that arguably these Isles’ two all-time greatest horror titles – Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man – were released, and even, extraordinarily, double billed. It is hardly a coincidence that 1973 is also the year in which Mark Jenkin has chosen to set Enys Men. For apart from more generally sharing the backward-looking sensibility and stylings of his previous Bait (2019) – as well as its Cornish setting (indeed ‘Enys Men’ is Cornish for ‘Stone Island’) – this latest feature is like a strange merger of Roeg’s and Hardy’s films, showcasing the former’s distinctive red raincoat and layered confusion of time, and the latter’s insular folk horror and May Day timing. Yet for all these evocations, Jenkin is very much doing his own thing.

There may be a rich ecosystem of birds, invertebrates and flora, but an unnamed, middle-aged Volunteer (Mary Woodvine) is the only human on this small rocky island off Cornwall, where she is researching a rare cluster of flowers. Her observations of these windswept cliffside blooms become part of a daily routine whose repetitions not only lend the film its iterative rhythmic structure (before the wild variations kick in), but also play out precisely like a ritual, with the entry that the Volunteer repeatedly writes in her log book – ‘No change’ –  becoming a kind of mantra. Necessarily self-sufficient, though running low on tea for herself and petrol for her cottage’s generator, the Volunteer is connected to the world beyond only through a walkie talkie that every so often squawks into life, and a transistor radio that plays hymns and hits (and occasionally provides a little local history as staticky, half-heard exposition).  

The island certainly does have history. There are the stone ruins of a tower and of a church, and an old, rusted freight track half-buried in the ground, and part of a ship’s painted sign snagged between rocks on the cliff – all these markers of human presence now being gradually reclaimed by nature. There is a standing stone planted opposite the entrance to the cottage – a phallic counterpoint to the Volunteer’s femininity – which is said to have been erected as a memorial to the men who once died in a shipwreck, and which is now covered in lichen. And deep beneath the surface there are old mining tunnels, the locus of dark, sweaty labour from long ago when the island was open to industrial exploitation (Enys Men itself was painstakingly made with a very low – and offset – carbon footprint).

“I’m not on my own,” the Volunteer will insist to a visiting Boatman (Edward Rowe) who brings her provisions and petrol, and who is curious as to how she copes with her weeks of isolation. The truth is, the Volunteer has many visitors: a young Girl (Flo Crow) who converses with her and often stands on a lower roof of the cottage; a Preacher (John Woodvine); a chorus of very young folk singers; a flock of bal maidens; beaming miners, including one (Joe Gray) who avails himself of the cottage’s toilet; a group of seven seamen in oilers; and even her own double. Yet none of these people – perhaps not even the Boatman – are really there. Whether they are products of the Volunteer’s restless dreams, or of her cabin fever, or ghosts from the past, or just part of the genius loci – in a film whose very title privileges location – they are conjured to fill the island’s abandoned spaces, and their appearance traces the Volunteer’s own fragmentation, like a double entry in the log of her unravelling mind. Even as she regularly reads from a paperback of Edward Goldsmith and Robert Allen’s ecological alarm book A Blueprint for Survival (1972), the Volunteer bears witness to lichen beginning to appear both on the flowers that she is studying, and on a deep scar across her own belly. In this place of no apparent change, change – and nature – are coming, and as this woman’s own damage resonates with historical scars etched into the island’s topography, the film’s initial rhythmic realism is soon giving way to something more timeless and psychedelic. 

All these exposed elements will converge on May Day – a phrase associated with both pagan ritual observance and marine disaster. The Volunteer too has become shipwrecked in a mystery that unfolds at its own pace and is never too concerned with explaining itself. For, like Russell Owen’s Shepherd (2021), Enys Men confounds site and psyche, belying the notion that no (wo)man is an island. Shot on 16mm with all the grain and texture of a genuine British film from the Seventies, and accompanied by Jenkin’s own unsettling score, this is a beautiful, unapologetically bewildering experimental moodpiece that is uncannily like one of the lost artefacts, imbued with the history of narratives buried and unspoken, which the Volunteer unearths on Enys Men.

Strap: Mark Jenkin’s experimental folk horror pits an unravelling woman against an island’s topography, history and nature 

Anton Bitel