An Island Out Of Time: Our Review of ‘Enys Men’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - March 31, 2023
An Island Out Of Time: Our Review of ‘Enys Men’

The atmosphere of dread is thick on the uninhabited Cornish island that serves as the setting for Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men. Set in 1973, the film follows the lone person on this island, a woman known only as The Volunteer (Mary Woodvine). Ostensibly a botanist, The Volunteer spends each day stoically going through the same routine, in which she checks on the condition of a rare wildflower, drops a stone down a long-abandoned mine shaft, and then returns to her cottage abode to record the findings in a notebook (summed up in two words – “No change”) before settling in to read from Edward Goldsmith’s seminal environmental text “A Blueprint for Survival”. All the while, however, someone or something feels ever-present alongside her in this odd purgatorial zone.

At first glance, Enys Men (which is Cornish for “stone island”) looks like just another dose of regularly scheduled folk horror programming, a revival that’s been increasingly popular ever since Robert Eggers gave us the bygone freakouts of The Witch and The Lighthouse and Ari Aster’s Midsommar slapped a fresh coat of paint on The Wicker Man. All the usual toys from the toy box are in use – the isolated rural setting, the emphasis on natural wildlife and its potentially supernatural properties, the spooky lingering energy of tragedies from another time. In keeping with the film’s time period, Jenkins also employs an accordingly old-fashioned style, shooting on warm 16mm and crafting a strangely disembodied post-sync soundscape to go along with it.

Throughout, the horrors of Enys Men are kept vague and likely tied to greater psychological or social trauma. Once the island’s wildflowers suddenly begin to sprout lichen, an array of other confounding phenomena is brought forth along with it. As the creeping terror ratchets up, the film expectedly keeps us attuned to the reality that all of this may just be happening within The Volunteer’s cryptic headspace. Is the teenage girl who is fleetingly glimpsed around the island the younger avatar of our protagonist? And if so, is the island even a research area at all or is it just The Volunteer’s home? Or perhaps the ghosts haunting this place are from a tragic shipwreck that happened off the coast of the island in a prior century, one that is memorialized by a statue that stands troublingly close to The Volunteer’s cottage.

Jenkin allows plenty of room for these tantalizing questions to run through our minds as The Volunteer’s routine continues to disrupt in alarming fashion. But where many recent and similarly constructed psychological horror films let their slow-burn ambiguity ultimately fizzle out into nonchalance and boredom, Enys Men astutely avoids becoming just another genre stunt. As a native of Cornwall, Jenkin has worked in the area for the last couple decades, making the film’s regional anxieties feel far more lived-in than they may otherwise have been. His wonderful breakthrough feature, 2019’s subtly tense psychodrama Bait, vividly portrayed an escalating spat between tourists and locals in an adjacent Cornish fishing town, and Jenkin remains keenly attuned to the specificities and conditions of a place that often seems like it exists at the farthest edges of the planet.

While retro aesthetics that only end up looking like stock Instagram filters are fairly commonplace in contemporary genre exercises, Enys Men’s audiovisual landscape, on the other hand, feels as markedly authentic as Jenkin’s sense of Cornish life. Shooting on an old-school hand-cranked Bolex (a camera Jenkin is well-versed in and last used to achieve Bait’s striking monochrome look), the film accrues a uniquely artisanal appearance, with shot lengths only able to reach up to 28 seconds at a time. Consequently, Enys Men’s hypnotically rudimentary images, often speckled with dust and grit, are ones which you can’t help getting lost in. Whether it’s in shots of The Volunteer traversing the island in her bright red jacket, or of the ever-deepening void of the mine shaft, or of the shipwreck memorial monument that might just be shifting around of its own accord, each visual seems to contain a world of mystery beyond the surface. Working in tandem with the post-sync sound, Enys Men ultimately keeps you locked into an intoxicating cinematic slumber from which it’s hard to wake up.

We may not know exactly what the source of Enys Men’s horrors is by the film’s conclusion but Jenkin’s approach ensures you’ll certainly be mulling it over in your own dreams for many nights (and days) afterwards.

  • Release Date: 3/30/2023
This post was written by
After his childhood dream of playing for the Mighty Ducks fell through, Mark turned his focus to the glitz and glamour of the movies. He's covered the extensive Toronto film scene for online outlets and is a filmmaker himself, currently putting the final touches on a low-budget (okay, no-budget) short film to be released in the near future. You can also find him behind the counter as product manager of Toronto's venerable film institution, Bay Street Video.
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