If you told me that Enys Men was a lost BBC movie from the early ‘70s, I would believe you. A throwback not only in look, but in tone and pacing as well, this Cornish folk horror gem is a spellbinding study of an isolated woman facing the weight of history and the horrors of solitude. The film — whose title translates to “Stone Island” — is an auteur effort from writer, director, editor, cinematographer, and composer Mark Jenkin. It’s an opaque film that demonstrates (and requires) patience, and it seems sure to reward repeat viewings to piece together its ghostly clues.
Mary Woodvine, Jenkin’s partner, plays an unnamed wildlife volunteer performing a study of a rare flower that grows on the cliffs of an uninhabited island. She follows the same routine every day: making tea, taking measurements near the flowers, dropping a stone down an abandoned mineshaft, and noting “no change” in her observation notebook. The film is hypnotic and contemplative, finding as much meaning in The Volunteer’s routine as in the puzzling events that begin to disrupt it. Bal maidens appear, lichen begins to grow in unexpected places, and a large rock that looks disconcertingly human becomes increasingly important. The images, often depicted in montage, wash over the viewer just like the frequent shots of the waves crashing against the island.
Movies truly take shape in the editing room, and this is especially true for the rhythmic, montage-heavy Enys Men. It feels like a folk horror marriage between Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and Don’t Look Now. The latter is an especially potent comparison, given the visual importance of The Volunteer’s bright red slicker. The color marks her as a rare flower, just like the one she’s studying, standing out amongst the muted natural tones of the island she explores. Shot on 16mm, there’s a grainy warmth to the film’s static, composed shots. There is little camera movement beyond slow zooms, allowing the viewer to settle into the landscape just like The Volunteer does as she slowly peels back the island’s secrets…or perhaps as the island peels back hers.
Enys Men is a ghost story, one firmly rooted in Cornish history. The abandoned mine is just as much a part of the island as the grass or the rocks or the flowers The Volunteer studies. When the eerie bal maidens appear — seven of them, to be precise; that number recurs throughout the film — they stay removed, on the surface, just as they did when they were working the mine. The Volunteer is the one going deeper. Woodvine’s face is captivating, adopting the same beguiling opacity as the film itself. You want to study her expressions to tease out new meanings from the tedium of her life on the island and the odd things she sees as that life starts to unravel.
Haunting and meditative, Jenkin’s Enys Men becomes its titular island. It comes to the viewer in waves, flows past them like wind, and settles on them like lichen. By evoking Cornwall’s past, it feels ancient; by cleverly mastering the feeling of a lost ‘70s film, it feels like it’s always been there, waiting for the viewer to discover it. For viewers who welcome that discovery, they will want to revisit it to uncover all of the island’s, and the film’s, secrets.
Enys Men opens in select theatres on March 31.