By RYAN COLEMAN
Starring Mary Woodvine
Written and Directed by Mark Jenkin
In 2019, Cornish director Mark Jenkin burst onto the international film stage with his exceptional first feature, Bait. Bait premiered at that year’s Berlinale to warm acclaim, but when it finally made its way back to the place of its provenance, it set the entire United Kingdom on fire. The stark, neorealist account of gentrification in a small Cornish fishing village picked up nominations at every major fest in the UK and Ireland, including the British Independent Film Awards, Edinburgh International Film Festival, Galways Film Fleadh, the London Critics Circle, and it took home the BAFTA for outstanding debut – a coup for a relative unknown from a region like Cornwall.
Bait was unlike anything seen in nearly 50 years. Shot entirely in black and white on 16mm stock using a hand-cranked camera, Bait is visually somewhere between Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli and archival footage shot for an anthropological study. Yet, Jenkin’s maverick, nonlinear editing style, use of striking close-ups, and canny sense of pacing makes the film compulsively watchable.
The bar for his sophomore feature, ENYS MEN, is understandably high. The film premiered on Friday, May 20, at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the parallel Director’s Fortnight section. While ENYS MEN doesn’t quite reach the form-shattering highs of its predecessor, it’s still a bold step forward for one of the most distinct new voices in British cinema. And most excitingly for horrorphiles, it’s a step directly into the genre. The formal rigor and structural idiosyncrasies that gave Bait its weatherworn honesty and epic scope are used to achieve pulse quivering horror in ENYS MEN.
The film is set entirely on a small, uninhabited island off the coast of Cornwall (“’Enys’ means ‘island,’” Jenkin explained in a pre-premiere intro, ”and ‘Men’ means ‘stone’”). Jenkin brought one of Bait’s scene-stealing supporting actresses, Mary Woodvine, back to star as a mysterious character credited only as “the Volunteer.” Woodvine is featured in virtually every scene and gives a high-wire performance of grief, rage, and exhausted control despite having only one or two minutes of dialogue.
The Volunteer lives alone in a moss-covered cottage on the island. Every morning she wakes and treks over a grassy hill toward the edge of the sea cliffs where she checks on a patch of spotless, turgid-looking white flowers with blood-red stamens. She then circles back, stopping at a shaft that cuts straight through the island to the sea beneath. She drops a rock into it, listens for the sound it makes, and heads back to her cottage. There, she records “no change” next to the day’s date in a log, fires up her generator, makes tea, reads a bit of Edward Goldsmith’s landmark environmental apocalypse warning A Handbook for Survival, and goes to bed.
This is virtually all that happens in the film. Rise, flowers, shaft, home, sleep. Every day, the Volunteer wears the same bright red raincoat, which sets her off against the verdant green grass of the island and the deep blue sea beyond. As it usually goes in films about fragile, lone women in forbidding environments, the routine starts to go off-kilter, and the film follows. One day the rock that she drops down the shaft sounds different. The next day, she looks down it and sees a group of coal-faced miners staring back at her. She trips over mossed-over railroad tracks (on an island?). She begins seeing a young woman dressed in the colors of the Virgin Mary standing on the roof of her cottage, threatening to jump off. To her horror, though we never know why, she discovers lichen growing on one of the flowers. Later at home, she discovers lichen growing out of a massive scar that rips from one side of her abdomen to the other.
What is going on? In the absence of any dialogue, backstory, or real action, Jenkin builds up a tight economy of symbolically loaded images – snow-white flowers, Jesus-shaped rock, ghosts of miners – that he pulls a ton of meaning from just by tinkering with them. In the last half of the film, the tinkering turns to torquing. The Volunteer is shown standing in place of the Jesus rock. The girl finally jumps off the roof and comes out with the same scar as the Volunteer. A man who brings supplies to the island is later seen being pulled out of the water, drowned. He’s dressed in period clothes, and he’s pulled out by the Volunteer, who stares back at herself, watching from the island. Are we seeing the past? Or is the Volunteer living on an island of trauma within her own mind?
If Bait was Jenkin’s Stromboli, then ENYS MEN is his Hour of the Wolf. In other words, to some, it will seem insufferably slow and pointless, but to others, it will be face-meltingly strange and rich with meaning. In either case, ENYS MEN makes it clear that Jenkin is going places that few filmmakers working right now are willing to.
ENYS MEN premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on March 20, 2022. This review is courtesy of the Unifrance Critics Lab.