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DIRECTED BY: Mark Jenkin
FEATURING: Mary Woodvine
PLOT: A solitary observer notes the progression of floral growth on a craggy coastal island whose tragic history begins to manifest.
COMMENTS: The heavy winds over the spit of land in the sea, the endless break of water on the rocky surf, and the defiant upright glowering of a singular plinth are the entire world of the unnamed observer in Mark Jenkin’s contemplative Cornish horror film, Enys Men. There were once, we eventually learn, others on this island, but through the repetition of our observer’s days, tasks, and rituals, it becomes clear that a horrific double-tragedy doomed this island to be nothing more than the playground for gusts, seabirds, and a lonesome botanist.
Days, tasks, and rituals: these are the concepts Jenkin explores, hoping (perhaps) to better understand the intersection of self, geography, and history. The days are clear enough. They’d probably happen without us, without Jenkin’s island observer. But she is there, chronicling the growth—actually, chronicling the growth of the growth; for days, she marks one species of jaunty flower “no change.” Observing these plants is one of her daily tasks, a break-down of the day into what needs to be accomplished. Alongside these chronicles, she reads the soil temperature and… and beyond that, it is unclear. What fills the rest of the observer’s days are rituals. After each reading, she drops a stone down a grated shaft, waiting to hear its distant thud. She reads a survival manual. She listens to a radio. And day after day, as the tasks and rituals go by, there is “no change.”
Until one day, there is. Enys Men is a film whose narrative, if you haven’t guessed by now, teeters on the abstract. Onscreen flashes, largely incoherent, like sidelong memories jutting into the periphery of your thoughts, hint both at the observer’s history, and the island’s. An “in memoriam” plaque lists landsmen and mariners who died attempting to save other doomed souls. The change in the flora correlates to a change in the observer’s rituals, when she accidentally discovers another piece of the land’s history, in the form of a nearly buried rail-track, and a long-forgotten sign from a visiting vessel.
The observer’s mind doesn’t deteriorate, per se, but adjusts to the steady rhythm and landscape she is living in. The past—hers and the island’s—are represented cyclically, as opposed to linearly. A lichen arrived on the flowers, and it begins to claim the observer. Tying her closer to her domain, the flora unmoors her falsely anchored perception. Her memories, and the island’s memories, intermingle, come and go with the rhythmic flow of the surrounding ocean, and flit to the whims of the coastal winds as her self, and the island, slip further into the cosmic tide.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Things don’t “add up.” That’s fine with me. I was riveted by every moment of this haunting weird film. ‘Enys Men’ made me legitimately uneasy. ” – Sheila O’Malley, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous) (contemporaneous)