Saturday 14 January 2023

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2023: Enys Men (UK 2022: Dir Mark Jenkin)

I'm one of the few reviewers who didn't ladle praise on Jenkin's first feature, 2019's Bait. Impressive though his debut was, there was something lacking for me, a well made if minor film that had somehow been remastered to make it palatable for a wider viewing public. For his second directorial outing Jenkin eschews the more or less linear narrative of his first movie for something which comes across like a meditation on time and trauma, framed, similar to Bait, like a horror movie, using many of that genre's touchpoints but shying away from being in any way a straightforward fright flick.

An unnamed woman, credited as 'the volunteer' (Jenkin's partner Mary Woodvine, returning from Bait) lives on a remote island carrying out a series of environmental tests; her precise job is unclear, although Jenkin has suggested that she's a Wildlife Trust voluntary worker. The woman's isolated daily routine, shown in a succession of repetitive shots, involves her taking soil temperature samples, assessing water levels by throwing stones down a well, and observing the behaviour of a group of seven strange plants which grow, also in isolation, on the island's barren terrain (the number seven will become a recurring motif in the film).

Assisted only by supplies of food and fuel ferried over by a chap from the mainland - providing her only human contact - the volunteer's lonely but seemingly contented existence continues quietly for the first part of the film as she takes her regular island walks, navigating the island's inhospitable terrain (including a massive, terrifying central standing stone which seems to change position according to perspective). But into her ordered existence intrudes images and visitations which suggest an earlier trauma for the central character and her becoming the focal point for a haunting; figures, possibly the victims of a shipwreck which occurred a hundred years before the setting of the film - 1973 - begin to appear, as do brief glimpses of local people dancing and a priest presiding over a long ago service (John Woodvine, veteran TV actor and father of Mary). As contemporary time moves toward the anniversary of the shipwreck - 1 May - the changes on the island increasingly impact both mentally and physically on the volunteer, as the 'haunting' takes hold.

There is no denying the vision of Jenkin's work; as photographer, editor, sound designer and director he's in total control of all that we see and hear in Enys Men (the title - 'Stone Island' in Cornish - refers to the place where the volunteer lives). This intensity is compounded by being filmed on grainy 16mm film with and post synced sound. The film was also shot in the area in which Jenkin grew up, an environment rich in myth and legend, and some of the story of Enys Men draws on source material culled from local stories, references which remain fairly impenetrable unless they're explained to the viewing audience. 

And this is the heart of where the movie falls down; everything we see is too oblique to be satisfying. It's not enough for the movie to stand on a succession of beautiful shots of wild nature, random visions and Woodvine's distantly pained expressions (her performance is almost dialogue free, perhaps understandable considering her isolated position). And Jenkin's well publicised influences inspiring the film play out almost literally; there's the red coat from 1973's Don't Look Now and the f*lk horror trimmings direct from The Wicker Man, there the incongruous rural imagery from the 1974 TV drama Penda's Fen. Enys Men at times feels like a movie tailor made for the dead format obsessed Ghostbox/hauntological generation, even down to the scuffed film stock and the soundtrack's drones and local songs. I'm quite prepared to be the dissenting voice here but I'm just not convinced that Enys Men, for all its stylistic touches, is all it's cracked up to be (to use a 1970s saying). Picture me disappointed.

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