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Essential Journal

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Review: Enys Men (2023)

Mary Woodvine haunts the Cornish Coast in this enigmatic and enthralling new film from BAFTA Winning Filmmaker Mark Jenkin.  

Mark Jenkin submerged the world in his rugged, rough debut Bait back in 2019, securing him the BAFTA for Outstanding Debut from a Writer, Director, or Producer. Bait is a bold feature, one that introduced Jenkin as a sort of experimentalist with a raw expressionistic approach to aesthetic and drama. Shot on 16mm film and developed by hand, with a soundtrack mastered by himself, Bait is a strange, yet intimate, portrait of modern Cornish village life, filmed as though it could have been plucked straight from history. 

It was this blend of historical process, complete and masterful creative control, and the modern – yet timeless – story of it all that saw Bait rise from the depths and become one of the most celebrated, innovative British films of the 21st Century. 

So, no pressure on the follow up then?

We were fortunate enough to be invited to experience Jenkins’ sophomore outing at a special preview event at FACT Liverpool as part of the film’s roadshow tour, in which the filmmaker himself sat down afterwards to chat about it. 

“When I made Bait, I wasn’t all that nervous,” Jenkin says, clutching the microphone in front of audience members of the sold-out showing. “I made the film for an audience of one, myself. After the success of it though, with this one, I had an audience waiting to see what would come next. That added a certain level of pressure that wasn’t there before.”

Enys Men premiered internationally at Cannes as part of the much-lauded Quinzaine (or Director’s Fortnight) section, a part of the festival that serves to platform new releases from first-time or early-stage directors, as well as established auteurs. In similar company, the other offerings from the United Kingdom that were programmed into the Quinzaine consisted of Holmer and Davis’ God’s Creatures (co-produced with Ireland) and Alex Garland’s Men. It is a tangled thread of Celtic folk horror that connects the three, but Enys Men stands tall as a monument of a new breed of folk tale – in particular, one that feels incredibly, uniquely, Cornish. The fact of which is extremely important and personal to Jenkin.

“Much like the central character, the film is lost in time. I see Enys Men as a lost Cornish Folk Horror,” Jenkin comments. 

When Jenkin was growing up, not far from his Gran’s house in West Penwith, he and his family would go and visit the Merry Maidens. A collection of menhirs, or standing stones, that have remained seated in a jagged circle since the Bronze Age. Legend has it, Jenkin explains, these nineteen stones were the petrified remains of girls who had been punished for dancing on a Sunday. They had frolicked to the tune of two pipers, who had also been set in stone for their participation in such a heathen ritual. 

A young Jenkin would then travel home, he’d cast his gaze back at the tall, imposing figures of the pipers. Always distorted, whenever he would turn back, they were never where he expected him to be. They’d be too far, too close, and, most worryingly, not there at all.

“These images, formed at an impressionable age, stayed with me, and some nights, even now, I find myself lying away, wondering about those stones. What might they be up to, under cover of darkness, out there on their own, on the moor, with no-one watching. What if the stones were living? What if the landscape was not only alive, but sentient?”

And that’s the hook of Enys Men

Enys Men is a wholly immersive experience that strips back the Merrie English preconception of a folk-tale and instead brandishes an artfully anti-romantic representation of the Cornish Coast, by pulling from the dark legends and near history that have petrified in these stones. The transcendental narrative slips you by as the terror, the dread, and the simmering unsettlement takes hold of your senses and places you right beside the protagonist. 

Mary Woodvine is The Volunteer, a wildlife observer, in 1973, who charts the changes in a particular kind of rare flower on the rocky coast of the island. However, outside of her house, at the top of the steep hill, is a single menhir that stands proud and eternal. 

Her day-to-day routine has become something of a ritual, one that aligns the premise of the film with the ecosophical thesis underneath it. Each day, after visiting the flowers, The Volunteer drops a stone into the shaft of an abandoned tin-mine, returning earth to earth as the sea rages and the wind batters fierce around her. She is connected to nature, beyond research and academia; her bright red coat, standing out against the landscape, is as much a part of the setting as the flowers she so studies. And, like the interweaving rhizomatic roots of the plants themselves, soon her sense of time and space slips away and The Volunteer’s physical form becomes indistinguishable from the ancient menhir itself. 

This is not, however, a painless process; in fact, it is much the opposite as we become privy to the destabilisation of The Volunteer’s sense of self, feeling it, quite literally, through Jenkins’ masterful filmmaker prowess. 

“I tend to think about the picture, sound, and score all at the same time, throughout writing, shooting and post-production. I don’t record any location sound. Even the dialogue is lost to the wind, to be re-created or re-written later in the studio. The aural atmospheres, foley, and music are created as one, with the rough picture cut reworked to fit the beats, rhythms and repetitions of the sonic landscape.”

Enys Men is shot on 16mm film using Jenkins’ curated process The grain and grit of the Kodak film stock illuminates the colours of the Cornish coast, whilst the soundscape goes beyond all sense of time and space, suspending the film perfectly within the year it is set. The end result is a piece that feels like a message in a bottle, a nightmarish tale washed ashore. 


Words: Beth Bennett

Imagery: Steve Tanner