Enys Men review: A surreal Cornish horror film that requires you to work

Enys Men is a real curio – a folk horror film with all the desperate mystery of a message in a bottle, or a garbled SOS call. It’s a film that demands some deciphering, viewers dropped in like detectives. A daunting task, maybe, but Enys Men is so rich with symbolism that there’s a real satisfaction to be gained from rifling through the clues. I wished only that I could get my own hands on it – to cut it up and rearrange it until something new blossomed in front of me.

It follows a woman, named only The Volunteer (Mary Woodvine), who is stationed on a remote outcrop (the film’s title is Cornish for “stone island”). Her sole task is to monitor the growth and condition of a patch of flowers. Time seems to bend around her. A radio broadcast mentions a monument erected half a century ago in May 1973, but The Volunteer’s notes are all dated to April of that year. She finds a piece of wreckage from a boat that’s yet to sink, and places it on her mantle. Her home crumbles into decay yet, in between scenes, seems to rebuild itself.

This reality is slippery. A seagull dips into the ocean with the sound of breaking glass. Rocks seem to sport human faces. The Volunteer begins to see figures, spectral only in the sense that we’ve been assured she’s alone on the island. She sees fishermen. Miners. An old lover. A girl who might really be her younger self. The radio talks of a monument erected as a symbol of collective grief for those lost at sea. Is The Volunteer being haunted by those who share that fate? Is The Volunteer herself one of the victims, a ghost retreading the path to her own annihilation?

Whatever the truth, there seems to be a deep, physical connection between the Cornish earth and its people – the Volunteer notes that lichen has started to grow on the flowers, only to lift up her shirt and see the same organism nestled alongside the scar on her belly.

Enys Men is directed by Mark Jenkin, who’s also responsible for its script, its editing, its cinematography, its sound, and its score. As with his previous film, 2019’s Bait – a portrait of gentrification on the Cornish coast – it’s shot on 16mm and uses sound added entirely in post-production. The overall effect has the scratchy but hyper-pigmented quality of dreams.

Cryptic as it might be, though, his follow-up is surprisingly embedded in traditional horror. The maidens in white that skip through The Volunteer’s line of sight seem eerie because we’ve been trained to see them that way, thanks to the heretical bloodlust depicted in Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). The Volunteer’s red, plastic raincoat must undoubtedly be borrowed from Don’t Look Now (1973). Would Jenkin ever be tempted to play his hand in Hollywood? Maybe with an A24 joint, à la Midsommar (2019) or The Lighthouse (2019), but I highly doubt it. Like the lichen peppered across The Volunteer’s flesh, Cornwall is just too much a part of him.

Dir: Mark Jenkin. Starring: Mary Woodvine, Flo Crowe, John Woodvine, and Edward Rowe. 15, 90 minutes.

‘Enys Men’ is in cinemas from 13 January