Enys Men review – a supremely disquieting study of solitude

·3 min read

With his breakthrough feature, Bait, in 2019, Cornish film-maker Mark Jenkin showed himself a bold experimentalist, the creator of a daringly strange expressionist cinema. It was a minimalist piece of work in black and white with the aesthetic of a silent film or even a home movie – shot on 16mm and developed by hand.

Now he has refined and developed this unique, stripped-down style for an eerie prose-poem of a movie about loneliness: Enys Men – the last word is pronounced “mane”, and in Cornish means “stone island”. It has the same almost primitive texture: the film itself feels like a hard, wizened, weatherbeaten object, like those seen on screen. Long stretches will go past entirely wordlessly, with ambient sea-spray sound and closeups on stones or cups, or the dial of the old two-way radio with which contact is maintained with the outside world. But it is far from restful. The mood is strange, always picking up on some disturbance in the ether, with sudden, deafening stabs of sound.

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Enys Men is shot in colour of a fierce, rich sort, and looks as if it was made in the year it is set: 1973. It is not exactly a horror film, despite some spasms of disquiet, but an uncanny evocation of how, when left utterly on our own, we spiral inwards into our memories, dreams and fears. Mary Woodvine (who was the well-off landlady in Bait) plays a woman living on a remote Cornish island, in a simple cottage whose future condition of moss-covered dereliction she appears to foretell or hallucinate. She is apparently researching the state of some wildflowers at the cliff-edge, every day inspecting their condition and taking their soil temperature, and solemnly recording the unvarying results in pencil in a ledger.

Every day after doing this, she has got into the superstitious habit of dropping a stone into the shaft of an abandoned tin-mine and listening for the faint splash. At night, she listens to a crackling transistor radio and reads a copy of the environmental tract A Blueprint for Survival by Teddy Goldsmith. She is dependent on a petrol generator for power at this rudimentary place; this petrol delivered by a local man, played by Edward Rowe. This woman remembers a past sexual relationship with him, or perhaps fantasises a future one, and she is also plagued with memory-apparitions of a troubled younger woman (Flo Crowe). Her daughter? Her younger self?

This woman’s steady state of hermit-like seclusion is disrupted when she sees lichen emerging from a flower and finds lichen growing on her own skin. She has visions, perhaps of dead miners or lifeboatmen, and also of an elderly priest, singing the hymn Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy, with its request to send a light to save “some poor fainting, struggling seaman”. He is played by Woodvine’s father, the distinguished Shakespearean actor John Woodvine.

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This is not a scary film in the generic sense but there is something unsettling in the simple spectacle of solitude: no company, no television, no shopping, no diversions. In 2022, it seems starker still. All alone on an island, no smartphone in your pocket, nothing but the pencil to make notes about flowers. It’s a situation that forces you to look in on yourself, and that indeed will take you to the brink of something that feels like madness.

Jenkin’s style is so unusual, so unadorned, it feels almost like a manuscript culture of cinema. There is real artistry in it.

• Enys Men screens at the Cannes film festival.

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