Mark Jenkin’s Cannes debut is an offbeat Cornish folk horror more concerned with atmosphere than story

Enys Men

Source: Protagonist Pictures

‘Enys Men’

Dir/scr: Mark Jenkin. UK. 2022. 90 mins.

Following the arthouse breakout success of his microbudget debut feature Bait, Cornish auteur Mark Jenkin now finds himself with the resources and scope to give free reign to his singular vision. Enys Men (the title is the Cornish language name of a deserted island and is pronounced ’Enys Main’) is billed as a folk horror but is too experimental and confounding to fit neatly into any predetermined genre. In a picture which follows a woman (Mary Woodvine) tasked with documenting a rare plant on an uninhabited island, supernatural elements collide with the kind of Cornish history which has seeped into the land and is written in the blood of those lost to the sea and the soil. But Enys Men is an enigmatic proposition, concerned with atmosphere rather than with story.

 It is through the film’s assertive sound design that much of the atmosphere is shaped, a little too emphatically at times.

It is a more challenging picture than Bait, which, with its relatable themes of displacement and of traditional livelihoods depleted, struck a chord both with Cornish audiences and those elsewhere. As such, it is unlikely to match the surprise success of Jenkin’s debut. However, following its debut in Director’s Fortnight, it is likely that further festivals will respond to this offbeat curio, which is shot on striking, pleasingly grainy 16mm film and makes the most of its photogenically untamed location.

But if the photography is distinctive, it is through the film’s assertive sound design that much of the atmosphere is shaped, a little too emphatically at times. It seems likely that the foley artist was having a whale of a time assembling the film’s chorus of metallic clanks, crashes and radio crackles, the soundscape being one of several elements which links the woman to the island’s past, as a mining community as well as a maritime hub. The score likewise works overtime capturing the spooky supernatural essence of the story, with a breathy, melodic drone which sounds like the wind blowing over empty bottles.

Woodvine, who appeared in a supporting role in Bait, is a striking screen presence, but the demands of carrying a film more or less solo for much of the running time push her to the edge of her comfort zone as an actress. The woman, who according to her journal is a resident of the island – the sole inhabitant – in spring of 1973, has a daily routine which involves checking on the plant, throwing a stone into a well, ignoring the short-wave radio, firing up her sputtering petrol generator and then reading a book by candlelight. But gradually, her certainties are eroded: other figures appear, stationary and staring directly into the camera lens. And it seems that she is connected to the very fabric of the island: when one of the flowers she is studying starts to grow lichen, so does the woman, mossy tendrils sprouting from a scar across her midriff. Like much in the film, the mysterious outbreak of tit-lichen is never fully explained.

While the film’s underlying theme, of tragedies from different periods coexisting in a single intertwined timeframe, is not dissimilar to that of Edgar Wright’s Last Night In Soho, tonally it is a very different beast. With its witchy, pagan flourishes and roughly hewn texture, Enys Men could be seen as a distant relative of the work of Andrew Kötting, or to a certain extent, Ben Wheatley. But commercially, it might struggle to match the impact of either. 

Production company: Bosena

International sales: Protagonist Pictures

Producer: Denzil Monk

Production design: Joe Gray, Mae Voogd

Editing: Mark Jenkin

Cinematography: Mark Jenkin

Music: Mark Jenkin

Main cast: Mary Woodvine, Edward Rowe, Flo Crowe, John Woodvine