On an isolated island, just off the coast of Cornwall, a woman (Mary Woodvine) checks the temperature of the soil surrounding a crop of a rare strain of flora native to the island each day. The year is 1973, and this bouquet of flowers overlooking the rolling Cornish cliffs and the churning Celtic Sea represents the only living thing with which she has had any physical contact for an unspecified amount of time. We learn that she is the volunteer for a floricultural preservation mission of some type and must remain on the sprawling emptiness of the island and monitor the plant for any changes to its delicate physiognomy.
She has settled into a deadening routine, where she reenacts the same mundane schedule every day. Even moments of spontaneity, such as tossing a stone into an abandoned mining shaft, become regimented through their repetition and lack of other options. Her grasp on when one day begins and ends and what is real or not begins to loosen. Temporality and continuity gradually become meaningless; the desolation of the island takes on the tone of an overture for something sinister; and the only comfort to be found is in one’s own company.
Mark Jenkins’ Enys Men (simply Cornish for “Stone Island”) is a hauntingly enigmatic reflection on Cabin Fever-esque seclusion, which confounds an audience’s impulse to solve its mysteries as it lulls you deeper into its wistful intrigue. Shot during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the film serves on one level as an artful attestation to the collective, anxious experiences of lockdown and the compounding mental strains of working through isolation. Yet it is evident from Jenkins’ beguiling yet modest design and ability to provoke his audience to dig deeper into the film’s threadbare surface that allows Enys Men to stay beneath your skin and unsettle you. Even though its use of metaphor is one of the better examples of indirectly addressing the lockdown experience, Jenkins’ film is often at its most engaging when it leans into the circuitous.
Enys Men’s plot remains purposefully thin for the sake of the film’s slow-burn mounting of an unsettling mood. The volunteer dutifully cycles through her routine until mental deterioration – or an unspecified supernatural threat – causes disturbing visions and events to (maybe) happen. But where Enys Men is a bountiful feast is in its aesthetic principles.
As established with his previous feature, Bait, Jenkins serves as his own director of photography and is incredibly adept at evoking a past era through his poignant use of outdated film technologies and techniques. Shooting in grainy 16mm with a reliance on natural light, he captures the haunting beauty of the barren Cornish island used for the film’s production with an exacting eye. Cyclical structure and its deliberate emphasis on mundanity allows Jenkins’ camera to really soak in the timelessness of the environment.
Gorgeously rendered, the film can occasionally function as a pastoral tone poem of sorts, which provides a strong sense of place while still managing to unnerve you, as Jenkins’ camera often drifts away from Woodvine to the uneven, rocky hills; to craggy cliff sides; or to decaying stone architectural left-behinds of the past.
How does it unnerve you? While strange occurrences begin to assault the precarious volunteer (who, through Woodvine’s compelling performance, remains unreadable through most of it), the real horror of Jenkins’ pseudo-folk-horror film is his denying of his audience any opportunity to orient themselves throughout her descent. Temporally, the film routinely caves in on itself as the volunteer’s all-consuming routine becomes indecipherable, due to Jenkins’ overlapping editing style and invocations of broader historic lore of this forsaken island that can only be glimpsed in passing rather than understood.
“COVID-lockdown metaphor” might be the most prominent reading of Enys Men (considering the circumstances of its very production), but there is a rich tapestry lying beneath that surface that Jenkins has painstakingly assembled for the sake of being puzzled over. While this occasionally obstructs the formal attempts to establish an all-consuming mood of ambiguous terror, I was finding myself pulled further into the film‘s peculiar rhythms and vibes rather than being put off by its loose mystery.
It is difficult to fully articulate why you are left so agitated by Jenkins’ film in the moment, but the way he is able to string you along through the film’s many frightening, strange digressions through this aesthetic and close-to-the-chest storytelling leaves an impression. Enys Men is best undertaken if you allow yourself to get absorbed into its powerful sense of atmosphere; it rewards and encourages those who want to dig deeper into its strange aura and Jenkins’ calculating style.