ENYS MEN Review: The Primary Haunting of a Lonely Existence
While British folk horror has people frightened with visions of isolated Scottish islands, forests that run down its spine, to me, Cornwall has always held particular creepy fascination. Maybe it's that this lonely peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic feels like it slips between worlds; maybe it's the connection to the Arthurian legends or stories of sea monsters or old abandoned tin mines. It's beautiful and desolate and has its own language (figuratively and literally, though the latter has been all but lost).
Mark Jenkin knows all of this; he's been making films about his home county for two decades. But it was his 2019 social drama Bait (you can read my review) that got him noticed on the international scene. He returns to Cornwall and its turbulent sea, once again utilizing a lo-fi, almost analog approach, and this time incorporating the darker and ghostly memories and histories of the region.
In 1973, on an uninhabited island off the coast of Cornwall, The Volunteer (Mary Woodvine) is in residence to observe a rare flower growing out of a small patch of soul at the rock's edge. Her job is to take daily temperature readings and note if there is any change to the plant. Her only contact with the outside world is a radio, and the occasional delivery of supplies. Power comes from a generator, and it's running low on petrol; the tea is also running low, and if you know the British, you know the problems that can cause.
But more than that, nothing is quite right on this island. 'Enys Men' is Cornish for 'Stone Island', and so not only is this flower rare (a flower never names), but so is fresh water. The Volunteer drops a stone down the rather cavernous well each day to check the level, and each time is takes longer to hear the splash. That splash sounds a lot more like the cry of a woman in pain. The radio comes on at strange moments and tells stories of ocean disasters and fishermen lost to the sea. Weeks and Weeks of writing 'no change' in the flower diary, and suddenly something is growing on the plant that doesn't belong there.
Something is growing on The Volunteer as well, growing across a scar on her abdomen. Lichen is a strang branch of fungus (one that I won't pretend to know much about), and of course there are many interpretations that could be made as to why it is growing on the plant and on the person. Suffice to say, as soon as it's discovered, everything odd thing that seemed to be in a holding pattern around the island comes slowly creeping across the land and inside The Volunteer's mind.
Who is the girl who seems to stand on the shed roof, watching The Volunteer? Has The Boatman really returned, or is The Volunteer seeing flashes of his grisly demise? She's out of dried milk and the water is running low and the lichen is growing and soon the flower will be devoured and it seems she can't do anything to stop the ghosts who are taking their rightful place.
The Volunteer is reading a book on survival - a 'blueprint' as the cover says, but it seems there is no such thing, not in a place like this so remote from the rest of the country's civilisation, where the means to create that survival means risking it constantly. Like the flower growing like a miracle, too much lies in wait to strangle it down. Everything feels not primal, but primary: the dominant colours of blue, red, and yellow; the basic foods, the basic means of communication with pen and paper to record the findings of life and death. Wooden structures are slowly rotting, while petrol, created from those organisms that seem to be reclaiming themselves by breaking down.
One of the many joys, and disturbances, of Jenkin's work in Enys Men is the myriad of ways is can be interpreted, according to each viewer. It's both mesmerizing and unsettling, yet will likely make you long for the dark call of the deepest sea, the isolated location, and all the madness that comes with it.
Enys Men will release in select cinemas in the USA and Canada on Friday, March 31st.
- Mark Jenkin
- Mark Jenkin
- Mary Woodvine
- Edward Rowe
- Flo Crowe