Aug 14, 2023

'Enys Men' Review: A Blueprint for Revival

Mark Jenkin’s film feels as though it could have emerged from the decade of its setting.

Writer-director Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men latest tackles folk horror. Its film and sound editing was done by Mark Jenkin. Its director of photography was Mark Jenkin. And its score was composed by Mark Jenkin. The fact that it doesn’t star Mark Jenkin is neither here nor there, as he’s everywhere in this solitary picture. The plot centers on a woman (Mary Woodvine) who dwells alone on a rocky isle, studying wildflowers. Only the center crumbles and warps until you aren’t quite sure what’s going on and who is responsible for the warping.

As with 2019’s Bait, Jenkin’s previous feature, Enys Men was shot on 16mm (this time in color), and its sound was post-synced, giving the dialogue a quaint and muffled flatness. Not that there’s much dialogue in the film to muffle. Woodvine’s character, who’s credited as The Volunteer, speaks now and then into a radio: “Petrol’s low,” she says, “and I’m running out of tea.” But most of Enys Men is filled with sounds: wind, crunching footsteps, a boiling kettle, the burble of static through a speaker, and the sea, as it roars and crashes against the coast.

Scattered throughout the film, Jenkin gives us a series of close-ups to the cliffs below, as they’re engulfed in creamy foam. This may or may not provoke a sharp craving for beer, though its intended effect, presumably, is to whip up the sense of isolation until it seethes.

The Volunteer’s days are taken up with repeated rituals. She dons a red rainproof coat, hikes into the hills, plunges a thermometer into the soil near a patch of flowers, and drops a stone into a well, listening for the distant echoes. Once back at the house, she pulls the chord on a generator, makes a pot of tea, records the date and the temperature of the soil in a diary (along with the words “no change”) and takes a bath before bed, reading a copy of Edward Goldsmith’s seminal 1972 environmentalist text A Blueprint for Survival.

The front of the book is adorned with a quote from a Sunday Times review: “Nightmarishly convincing…after reading it nothing seems quite the same any more.” Indeed, something similar could be said of Enys Men. It leaves you feeling as if you had emerged from a troubled sleep, and the world seems weirder as a result, but has Jenkin conjured a convincing nightmare?

Enys Men is certainly rooted in home soil. Jenkin hails from Cornwall, and the film’s title—which refers to its fictional setting—is Cornish for “stone island.” Plus, his eye for period detail is unerring; if you didn’t catch the date in the woman’s journal, then her milky turtleneck, and the sight of a kettle steaming on a hob, both help to thicken the 1970s brew.

But the film’s horrors lack potency. There’s nothing here to match the conflagration that caps the original Wicker Man, or the rusticated savagery that held sway in Midsommar. Jenkin is more interested in registering the quieter shocks of solitude: ghosts (or are they memories?) that arrive like uninvited guests, hallucinations, and chronology that cracks and slips.

Enys Men is awash with unsettling visions. As lichen appears on the wildflowers, so, too, does it sprout along the pale edge of a scar on the woman’s belly. Later, she returns to the house and finds it ruined, its façade devoured by creepers, only to spot herself walking out the front door. Woodvine reacts to all this with a kind of muted alarm, as though these oddities were faintly known to her. As for the girl (Flo Crowe) who periodically appears, she may well be a younger version of our heroine, or perhaps her child. The film is happy to let uncertainty hang in the air.

If the island really is distorting the flow of time, it’s in lockstep with Jenkin’s methods. The warm grain of his images, and the boxy aspect ratio that hems them in, makes Enys Men feel as though it could have emerged from the decade of its setting. You may wonder if Jenkin’s retro style, in this and in Bait, might be more than just a nostalgic shtick, and whether it might be the expression of a deeper yearning. With its subdued chills, its insistence on hypnotic repetition, and its unhurried approach to narrative investigation, perhaps Enys Men might have been called A Blueprint for Revival: an attempt to restore to horror something that Jenkin feels has been lost. If only it didn’t lack the power to truly frighten us, it may have flourished.

Josh Wise is the features and reviews editor at VideoGamer. He mostly plays games from at least fifteen years ago, but strives to find time for new releases too.

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