Bait was Mark Jenkin’s howl of anger against the decline of rural industries and the invasion of communities by affluent city dwellers. It caused a stir, alerting us to a new British director with a distinctive voice and vision, and the inevitable question followed. What would he do next? Enys Men is the answer, in part more of the same and in part something different, one that takes his “show, don’t tell” style into darker and more disturbing territory.
A volunteer wildlife worker (Mary Woodvine, who also played one of the interlopers in Bait) has taken up residence on a deserted island off the Cornish coast. Her main interest is a strange plant growing on a cliff edge but, as time goes on, she becomes more preoccupied with the island’s history. Despite the discipline of a daily routine, the solitude starts to turn her inwards, with reflections on her own past mingling with that of the island, so that the lines between reality and memory become increasingly and dangerously blurred.
Anybody who saw Bait will immediately recognize Jenkin’s love for shooting in 16mm, although this time he’s abandoned grainy black and white for strong, almost garish colour. The imperfections that created the home movie style of his first film, and gave it an engagingly personal feel, are gone. But, crucially, he keeps a firm hold on his ability to use visuals to their maximum effect while keeping the dialogue to a minimum. Here, there are long periods when a word isn’t spoken, but the film is far from silent, with recurring sounds providing comfort and reassurance. Other unfamiliar ones are jarringly out of place, warnings and shadows of darker things to come.
It’s a film with a definite rhythm, driven by the volunteer’s (we never know her name, nor anybody else’s) daily routine – checking the plant, dropping a rock down an old mine shaft to listen to the splash, listening to a transistor radio (the film is set in the mid-70s) and reading a book on the environment in the evening. The more she drifts from her timetable, the more her grasp on reality starts to unravel and even the minimal conveniences in the shabby house – she relies on a petrol driven generator for electricity – can’t quite keep her mind from wandering.
Although Enys Men could easily fall into the currently fashionable category of folk horror, the actual scares are few and far between. The atmosphere Jenkin creates is one of foreboding, a struggle to understand and the overall feeling that history is always looking over our shoulder, manipulating the present day. While not as engaging as his first offering, his stripped back style never fails to compel and fascinate, proving that the unique voice we heard back in 2019 remains intact.
Horror | UK cinemas from 13 January 2023 | BFI Distribution | Dir. Mark Jenkin | Mary Woodvine, Edward Rowe, Flo Crowe, John Woodvine, Joe Gray.