Enys Men is the kind of film that one person will like and another will not for exactly the same reasons. Chronicling the disturbing experiences of a lone ‘volunteer’ who is monitoring the progress of some rare plants on a barren, wind-battered Cornish island, it’s discordant, fragmented, dreamlike and, most of all, unsettling.
The island in question (Enys Men translates as Stone Island) is dominated by a standing stone that is the first thing The Volunteer (excellently played by Mary Woodvine) sees whenever she steps out of her cottage. It is 1973, according to the records she keeps, and her only means of connection with the world are a transistor radio and a CB for talking to the mainland. Every day, as a matter of ritual, she drops a stone down a mineshaft and waits for the faint, distant splash.
But soon strange things start to happen. There is a news report on the radio that could only be from a future year. The ocean’s waves roll backwards. She is frequently accompanied by her younger self. She is serenaded by white-robed children and Bal Maidens.
Yes, this is a film about time and the landscape, both of which haunt The Volunteer in ever more disturbing ways. Her journey towards madness is chronicled with sparse dialogue, frequent bursts of deafening sound, fragmented time and inexplicable visions of the island’s past inhabitants.
Shot on 16mm, Enys Men has the coarse grain and visceral colour of the folk-horror films of the era it is set in, which adds yet another layer to its sense of disturbed time.
A friend and I saw the film on the big screen at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. Knowing that I was in for a ’different’ kind of movie experience, I opened my mind and allowed it to transport it to its own reality. In other words, I was willing to be challenged, and in this sense the film totally worked on me. I thought it was brilliant. The friend I attended the screening with, on the other hand, was not so taken with it. As I said at the start, this film is one that is going to divide people. Some will tune into the language of it, some will not.
The screening was followed by a Q&A with director Mark Jenkin, who also wrote, shot, edited and scored the movie. Phew. Mark spoke about the hands-on approach he takes to his work, how the pandemic affected the film and how much of what we saw on the screen does not necessarily have a meaning, but allows viewers to find their own. He also related how he got carried away with the scoring process and started to have delusions of being a rock star. It was a very enlightening, enjoyable and often funny talk.
In an interview with Fortean Times magazine about Enys Men, Mark said that as a child he was frightened of the Merry Maidens standing stones in Penzance, having been told that they had once been living, breathing girls, and that they had been turned to stone for daring to dance on the Sabbath. He also said that ‘the scariest thing in horror films is when times stops making sense’. In these two things you’ll find the DNA of his film. Seek it out on the big screen if you possibly can. I can strongly recommend it, but I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it.