Sep 28, 2022
Mary Woodvine, Edward Rowe, Flo Crowe
Enys Men is an ethereal horror and visual poem about enduring grief. The latest film from Bait director Mark Jenkin may be less concerned with narrative than his previous feature but it is arguably more emotive. This island set chiller is bound to be a new favourite for M.R. James fans whose Christmas Ghost Stories DVDs are nearly worn out. Also worth noting, is that Jenkin has previous experience working with this particular type of British ghost story as witnessed in his memorable short Hard, Cracked the Wind.
Set on an uninhabited island off the coast of Cornwall, Jenkin lays the early groundwork by establishing the island’s immediate connection to the passage of time. The endless rolling of the sea crashing against and eroding the rockface, the clouds and gulls high in the sky. Time passes but so slowly that it seems frozen. Everywhere there are indicators that time has passed but unless we feel it, how do we really know? The Volunteer (Mary Woodvine) as she is simply known in the credits, measures her time by routine, every day she takes a temperature reading next to a patch of wildflowers. The unholy red of their stamen is matched by the colour of her anorak, not unlike the one in Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, another film obsessed with loss. Afterwards she climbs up the rockface, selects a palm-filling stone, and drops it down an abandoned mine shaft. She waits, and we wait, until it crashes against the surface at the bottom. On the way back to her island cottage she passes a standing stone, a radio broadcast informs us that it is a site traditionally visited to remember loved ones lost at sea. Who is it that she has lost? We can only assume they are the reason why she has tied herself to this desolate rock. In the evening she makes herself a cup of tea, reads or listens to the radio, and records the day’s findings: “19th April 1973. 14.2 degrees. No change.”.
Each day is delineated slightly by her wanderings and discoveries, whether it be a rusted minecart track, or driftwood from an old fishing boat. Relics from professions that will have defined the local people somewhat. Whole communities, lifestyles, and traditions, that have been forgotten and abandoned in a matter of decades. And now these remnants are the only signifiers that remain of their lives. At the end of these days, it altogether culminates in a scribbled, “No change.”. Until, one day, she feels a disturbance in the wildflowers. This marks the beginning of a breakdown. She leans into her routine as a crutch, but it cannot steady her for long. As she stares into the void of loss, time collapses, and the spirits of the island’s previous inhabitants haunt her. Her blue eyes scream down the camera piercing the gorgeous 16mm film and the viewer’s soul.
Like the standing stone, the film itself, feels tangible, trapping the alchemical mix of fear and empathy. Grief and film are both processed are they not? Enys Men, in traditional horror fashion, is obsessed with dualities and thresholds. Where the sea and the sky meet, so too do the past and the present. As above, so below. Rituals, chanting, déjà vu, and doppelgangers.
The score designed by Jenkin, featuring collaboration from Gwenno (for whom he shot the music video for Den Heb Taves), contorts every movement. Sonic dislocation factors in greatly to the eerie and otherworldly plane of Enys Men. The soundscape plays in tandem with the image but jolting and juddering fractions of a second ahead or behind to distort the on-screen reality. Just another trick in this director’s overflowing toolbox.
Enys Men is without a doubt one of the best British ghost stories. Manufacturing fear is one thing but the way in which Jenkin imbues the film with a deep and personal sense of grief makes it impossible not to feel an empathic and profound sadness for the Volunteer. A figure who seems to burden lifetimes of loss and whose eyes, once witnessed, will forever haunt the viewer.