Review: Enys Men
by David Katz
- CANNES 2022: Following his acclaimed breakthrough feature, Bait, Cornish filmmaker Mark Jenkin makes a natural step into eerie folk horror
As Bob Dylan sang in “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, “everybody must get stoned”. And now, we have Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men [+see also:
interview: Mark Jenkin
film profile], surely one of the only films to date to connect rock geology to psychedelia and out-of-body experiences, owning the double entendre as surely as Dylan does. Jenkin’s cinema takes place – to use a trendy word – in a “liminal” zone, immersing itself in the strange encounters of maritime life on the Cornish coast, with all that mist, fog and loneliness. An obelisk-like standing stone may be just that, however creepy, to outsiders, yet for the sailors traversing the local isles on their route, it becomes a lodestar of superstition and significance.
Premiering this week in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight strand, Enys Men absorbs and chills to a moderate degree, yet is missing the out-of-the-blue inspiration of Bait [+see also:
interview: Mark Jenkin
film profile], his previous, Berlinale-launched work, which brought warranted excitement about Jenkin as a potential new British master. Bait had the observational acuity of Ken Loach’s work, angrily lamenting the social changes in one of the most deprived areas of the country, but couched it in a silent film-like aesthetic that provided cinematic rapture. Whilst the environmental and social concerns of Enys Men (meaning “stone island” in the Cornish language) also grow directly from Jenkin’s lifelong connection to the area, the experience is more in the modish school of contemporary folk horror, evoking and falling short of Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Ben Wheatley, and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (released in 1973 – the year in which Enys Men is set – but feeling ageless).
Moving to the lead role after a supporting part in Bait, Mary Woodvine is an unnamed “Volunteer” for the Wildlife Trust, stationed alone, somewhat mysteriously, for around a month on a small island off the Cornish coast. Her duty simply involves recording the local environmental effects on a patch of rare white flowers, located near the man-made shaft of an out-of-commission tin mine. An unlikely sense of comic timing was one of Bait’s rare virtues, and Jenkin gets a mild frisson of humour with many close-up inserts of the Volunteer writing, “No change,” day after day, in her scientific logbook.
But significantly, the date stamps are progressing closer to 1 May, or May Day, and the film begins to add some volatility to its placid surface. In a helpful bit of exposition from Woodvine’s crackly vintage wireless (which also alights on a station that plays ambient electronica and Blaxploitation-style funk), we learn that the Stonehenge-like menhir, or standing stone, occupying the exact centre of the island, is viewed by locals as allowing them to remember episodes of grief from their past, not far removed from how the radio itself broadcasts vital flashes from the outside world into this primordial landscape. Tiny red lichens begin appearing near the flower’s pistils – and they’re accordingly registered in the logbook. And more intriguingly, our sense of who the Volunteer actually is, and her possible past relationships across the span of her life, break down into multi-stranded, forking paths, expressed by Jenkin in a flashing series of match and associative cuts. Edward Rowe, the fisherman star of Bait, makes a welcome appearance, but who, or what, exactly is he playing?
The film’s thesis seems to be about environmental care: the beautiful things and ways of life that will be swallowed up by the sea 50 years hence, through the frightening prognosis we are facing from the climate crisis. But this feels more vague, and less urgent and voluble, than the vital glimpses of Cornwall that this filmmaker has previously been able to capture.
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