Mark Jenkin is a Cornish filmmaker who made a minor splash in Britain with his 2019 film Bait. He took his time, making a few smaller projects before he embarked on his second feature. I never got around to Bait, but after suffering through Enys Men I can’t say that I’ll be rushing down to buy the BFI release.
Many people I respect, like Mark Kermode and Peter Strickland, have been singing this film’s praises, which was partly why I was curious to check it out. However, from the get-go the film is overly experimental for its own good, with its tale of a female wildlife volunteer (Mary Woodvine) who starts to go a bit crazy on an uninhabitable island off the Cornish coast. On a very superficial level, there is some parallel with films like The Lighthouse, In the Earth and Men, but those films are also wildly entertaining, and their makers know how to push the narrative forward. Jenkins is more on the art-wank side of filmmaking, and this feels much more like an art installation than a film: his contemporary and friend Strickland also falls into this category, but he always has enough of a script to pull it off—and it helps that there is plenty of good old sex and violence in his work as well.
Jenkin attempts to put the viewer in a trance-like state that reflects the monotonous nature of the volunteer’s routine, but there is no way for the viewer to get invested in her situation, no emotion, absolutely zilch. At times, it ends up being a series of striking images, but due more to the 16mm film stock than any real talent of composition from Jenkin, who is the cinematographer too… of course. The film eventually descends into some pretty boring attempts at British folk horror coupled with a dose of body horror. The horror elements seem kind of thrown in just so he could sell it as something: in the States, Neon really tried to promote this as the new “elevated horror” film from England, and failed.
The pacing is non-existent, and within 30 minutes of this you really stop caring, because nothing is happening. Then when something finally “happens,” you stopped caring so long ago that it doesn’t matter. I’m a firm believer that in some cases style can be substance, but the style here has been done better, and there is not an ounce of substance to be found. If it went just full surreal folk horror and had some kind of internal logic like good horror films do, I could’ve been on board. Jenkin went out of his way to achieve a small carbon footprint in the filmmaking process, but maybe sometimes you need to go bigger so people actually care enough to get into your masturbatory film.
BFI has given Enys Men a fancy release with commentary with Jenkin and Kermode. They reunite again for an on-stage interview with Woodvine, in which Jenkin and Strickland get real nerdy with 86 minutes on sound design in film. There’s also a featurette of Jenkin doing the score (a man of many talents!), some Cornish shorts from the BFI archive, an image gallery and the film’s trailer. The booklet features new essays by Rob Young, Tara Judah, Jason Wood and William Fowler.