Mark Jenkin’s is one of the most evocative auteurs working in Britain. Bait, my film of the year for 2019, looked like a government-sponsored documentary from the ‘50s, a grainy, black-and-white relic recovered from the coast of Cornwall. It was unique, unclassifiable.
In Enys Men, Jenkin turns his talents to folk horror – but how does he fare amid the well-worn tropes and themes that have challenged even established genre filmmakers?1 Remarkably well, as it transpires.
April, 1973. A woman (Mary Woodvine) in a red raincoat strides the rocky shoreline of a small island off the Cornish coast.2 She examine the local wildflowers and drops a stone down a shaft of the nearest tin mine. That done, she returns to the cottage where she lives and updates the logbook – “No change”. As her daily activities becomes ritualised, a slight breach in her routine seems to threaten the integrity of the natural world.
With her red coat evocative of Don’t Look Now, or indeed Little Red Riding Hood, seeming to foretell danger, the woman experiences visions of the island’s historical inhabitants: bal maidens clad in white, an elderly preacher clad in black (John Woodvine) stood out in the night. Enys Men has both the look and sound we recognise from ‘70s folk horror – shot on grainy 16mm Bolux stock with post-synced sound, always an uncanny touch – but Jenkins is more interested in signs and signifiers; in exploring the connection between the physical world and his protagonist’s state of mind.
It’s like Ingrid Bergman directed The Shining with John Coquillon as cinematographer – though here Jenkin himself acts not only as writer-director, but editor, composer, cinematographer, sound designer. I interpret Kubrick’s film, perhaps somewhat ironically, as being, essentially, about the dangers of interpreting patterns. Enys Men, is more ambiguous, sparser, more sensory, in its depiction of the supernatural vs. the psychological. Jenkin’s protagonist is more isolated, more of a cipher, than Jack Torrance, but her inner life is more detailed for it. No axe-wielding psychos here. Any threat is purely, perceivably existential.
Enys Men is a metaphysical mystery. Who is the girl (Flo Crowe) who seems to sometimes live in the other bedroom? What of the man (Edward Rowe)? Why does the menhir, the standing stone, on the hillside outside the cottage, seem not only to change character – from benign monolith to black fang – but to move? Walking the line between the obvious and the obscure, Jenkin’s gives us plenty to interpret – in fact, I’d argue that the film’s final act is, if anything, too crowded with meaning – as signs, sometimes literal, warn us of tragedy, past and possibly future. When overt horror elements appear, more than just an air of the uncanny, they feel intrusive.
For a work that seems to have a lineage as uncertain as Dickens’ The Signalman and Doctor Who episode “Stones of Blood”, Enys Men has a carefully crafted mastery of tone. Jenkin’s ambient score thrums and vibrates, like wind through the eaves. It’s a singular, striking work of cinema that offers no easy answers. Like the woman herself, all we can do is observe and try to make sense of the world as we experience it.