THE STORY – Living on an island off the Cornish coast, a wildlife volunteer’s daily observations of a rare flower takes a dark turn into the strange and metaphysical, forcing her to question what is real and what is a nightmare.
THE CAST – Mary Woodvine, Edward Rowe & Flo Crowe
THE TEAM – Mark Jenkin (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 90 Minutes
“Enys Men” – pronounced “Ennis Maine” – is more of a mood piece than a narrative film and has no actual plot. It’s the second film of British writer-director Mark Jenkin, whose debut film, “Bait,” won a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut. To be sure, his sophomore effort is admirable, yet it fails to live up to recent films that are light on exciting plot developments – such as “EO” or even the Oscar-winning “Nomadland.” “Enys Men” is a technically impressive achievement that is boring, not inventive, and forgettable.
The main character in “Enys Men” is an unnamed woman, credited as “The Volunteer,” played by Mary Woodvine. In fact, no characters have names, which was intentional, as Jenkins wanted everything and everyone to be mysterious. This particular volunteer has been working on an uninhabited island off the Cornish coast in the 1970s, collecting data and logging information daily. We don’t know what kind of data she’s collecting and why she’s doing it, although it’s clearly a fairly mundane life – even after she discovers a rare flower that seems to alter her perception of reality. She has limited communication with the outside world, aside from the appearance of a Boatman (Edward Rowe) and spirits/ghosts who haunt her at various times.
The film is experimental and far from plot-driven; in fact, no real plot or story can be grasped. Even though “Enys Men” is only 90 minutes long, it’s incredibly slow-moving and not well-paced, giving the impression that it might have been better as a short film. There just isn’t enough material to warrant a full-length feature film, which is already shrouded in mystery. There is such minimal dialogue that it’s easy to see why it only took Jenkins three nights to write the script by hand; we don’t hear any spoken words until 9 minutes into the film. There appears to be some eerie foreshadowing earlier in the film, which is never resolved. The film ends with much more of a whimper than a bang, as is often the case with horror films. “Enys Men” does, however, contain other horror film tropes, such as hallucinations, ghosts/spirits, jump scares, quick transition, body horror, and the like – yet it never feels like a horror film. Is it meant to be a ghost story? The movie is far too obtuse and abstract to be able to answer that question. For a supposed horror film, it’s not scary at all, and any moments intended to be frightening don’t feel earned, and any screams from the main character are almost laughable in their absurdity. The film could also be about portraying one woman’s descent into madness, which Woodvine conveys convincingly, even if she’s never given anything all that taxing or dynamic to do.
The film contains a plethora of beautiful cinematography of, in particular, animals and nature, filmed on the Cornish coast. However, the decision to shoot on 16 mm makes the movie appear much more like a B-movie than a work of art, and the preponderance of extreme close-ups of Woodvine, and her everyday life, such as starting the generator, was mostly unnecessary and unwarranted. Jenkin presents the mundane nature of the character’s existence, which is easily relatable, yet he doesn’t intersperse it with anything remotely interesting. Her life is, like the film, rather boring. Many scenes and moments are needlessly repetitive and monotonous; there is no character development or depth. And yet, there are hints of what this movie could have been if it had been more fleshed-out or at least more innovative. Jenkin is evidently a better filmmaker than a writer and his noticeable sense of style in filmmaking clashes with the lack of innovation and modernity in storytelling.
A notable technical element of “Enys Men” is the use of sound throughout, which is clearly explicitly done and sporadically to build tension. While it is unsuccessful in this regard, the sound design is praiseworthy and impressive, sometimes lending a haunting atmosphere to the story (which doesn’t last). Despite the frequently slow pace of the film, the editing is occasionally tight and purposefully so; Jenkin also edited and scored the film. In addition, Jenkin’s film has an identifiable sense of place, even if the story doesn’t necessarily do anything interesting with that. What he shows in the film would be too symbolic for the average viewer, even though there’s often nothing wrong with making your viewer work to understand what you’re going for in your film.
After watching “Enys Men,” you will probably ask yourself, “What is this film trying to say? Does it have something to do with grief?” You are unlikely to get an answer, perhaps even from Jenkin himself. Instead of being the folk horror film he intended to be, it’s much more of a nature documentary with no voiceover. Watching an unnamed character take basic climate and weather data is as dull and mundane as it sounds, and Jenkin’s attempts to make this fascinating go unrealized. Even at 90 minutes, it’s a film that requires a lot of patience and attention to detail, which may work for some viewers but only for some. It’s simply too abstract for its own good.