A woman walks along a clifftop towards a stone cottage, the only structure as far as the eye can see. Struggling against the wind, she inches her way up a hill, trudging through the undergrowth, a reminder that grief slows the world down. Time and liminal space stretch and strain, minutes take longer to pass, the horizon reaches further away. It is lonely, it is mundane, and it is cruel. “Enys Men,” the latest film from British arthouse director Mark Jenkin, manifests grief as a a literal island, with its sole resident walking through its rituals with grim determination.
The film, for all its experimental form, wears its central allegory on its sleeve. One of its few lines of dialogue is heard through a crackling radio explaining, “The abandoned island of Enys Men has become a monument of grief,” and our protagonist known only as The Volunteer (Mary Woodvine) walks through each day’s routine with eerie detachment. The film begins in April 1973, and we meet The Volunteer checking on a bunch of long-stemmed white flowers with glowing red stamen, all growing from an otherwise barren clifftop.
She checks the temperature of the soil (14.4 degrees Celsius), then drops a single white rock down a well and listens closely to the echo. Mysterious tasks completed, she returns to her stone cottage where she is alone, save the radio, a book titled “The Blueprint of Survival,” and the occasional hallucinatory specter (alluded to as survivors of shipwrecks, former lovers, or even The Volunteer as a teenager). At times, it is unclear as to who mourns for whom, as the people she envisions seem to be either manifestations of her grief or the very emotional lifelines that could potentially pull her out of it.
Each day, The Volunteer notes the status of the flowers with “No Change” jotted down in a ledger, but as the first day of May approaches, it is evident that something is shifting. With each passing day, the dread is subtly amplified, the flowers grow, the presence at the bottom of the well becomes more tangible. Much like with Jenkin’s striking tale of Cornish fishermen “Bait” and parenthood dramedy “The Midnight Drives,” the films operate based on a dreamy internal logic that is never made explicit.
It is also, much like his previous films, a distinctly Cornish piece of work, not just its craggy cliff faces and gray stone cottages, but in the Celtic quasi-pagan identity that is long forgotten in much of England.
Jenkin’s experimental style of filmmaking’s greatest strength is how it coheres with his old-school technical abilities. Although “Enys Men” is in color (unlike the black-and-white hit “Bait”), it is still lovingly shot on 16mm, hand processed to create footage that could pass for a dusty reel of film discovered in forgotten archive. The light scratch on the images, hard cuts, and slightly out of-sync sound effects create a handsome rough texture in each scene. Rock faces, moss, and skin feel tangible and unsettling, with an eeriness reminiscent of English films made in the ’70s and ’80s by Nicholas Roeg and Derek Jarman.
This is Jenkin’s first feature in color, but he still utilizes the high contrast cinematography of his previous black-and-white images, opting for vivid splashes of pigment making The Volunteer, in her bright red jacket, appear like a lurid bullet wound in the landscape. The uncanny geography of the island, combined with his love of extreme close-up, is employed for both creeping dread and the occasional jump scare.
Perhaps most impressive is Jenkin’s score and use of sound design. The over-dubbed dialogue is often a microsecond out of sync and is delivered by the performers with an inhuman flatness that subtly evokes the supernatural. His punctuations of silence are wielded like weapons, but most impressive are the loudest moments when his mix of abstract tonal music is blended into a cacophony with waves crashing, blowing wind, and ominous echoes that rise from the hellish caverns below.
Some of the folk-horror elements of “Enys Men” seem superficial: a build to May Day, menacing druidic stone obelisks, and synchronized bal maiden dances read as more style than substance. The aesthetic is steadfastly ’70s Cornwall throughout, but some design elements feel more like set dressing rather than fully embedded in the heart of the film’s folklore. Where the folk-horror elements work best is when images of pastoral cosiness are reimagined as cursed rituals and creature comforts like warm baths with a book take on the tone of pagan sacrifice.
As much as Jenkin’s film is hypnotic and strikingly realized, in the final half hour it runs out of tricks up its sleeve. Specters and screeching sounds reappear again and again with lessening intensity. It’s admirable that Jenkin resists the temptation to over-explain or wrap up proceedings with a neat narrative bow, but there’s a limited impact to him just rearranging the existing pieces on the board.
To give credit to Jenkin’s vision, a “monument to grief” is fittingly not something where things can be easily resolved. The wounds of The Volunteer do not neatly heal over, no matter how much time passes. While the film defies narrative conventions in many ways, perhaps it’s most apt that despite the changes to the island and The Volunteer, the horror and crippling isolation of mourning cannot be cleanly conquered, that “Enys Men” cannot be left behind, but it may be a place where growth is possible.
“Enys Men” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Neon will release it in the U.S.