Directed by Mark Jenkin.
Starring Mary Woodvine, Edward Rowe, Flo Crowe, Joe Gray, and John Woodvine.
Set in 1973 on an uninhabited island off the Cornish coast, a wildlife volunteer’s daily observations of a rare flower turn into a metaphysical journey that forces her as well as the viewer to question what is real and what is nightmare.
There’s much abstract storytelling and atmospheric anomalies in writer/director Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men, so I should probably start by clearing up one mystery: the title is Cornish for “stone island,” which is where a confounding series of events smashing together several points in time unfolds.
Referred to in the credits as The Volunteer (and played by the filmmaker’s wife Mary Woodvine, appropriately conveying a nuanced psychological break presumably tied to a traumatic past connected to all types of people she hallucinates during her isolation), Enys Men is 95% dialogue-free, centering on this woman in 1973 on an uninhabited island going about an intentionally repetitive routine of checking on a unique flower type daily, writing down any changes inside a ledger back home.
Aside from a minuscule change in temperature (to such a degree that the woman seems to think it’s not worth noting), The Volunteer also regularly drops a rock down a dilapidated well, and while it’s possible my mind was searching for things that aren’t there since there’s not a whole lot happening in the movie, it also seems that the distance to the ground is slightly altered day by day.
It’s not necessarily a negative when a film requires effort on behalf of the viewer, but much of Enys Men is esoteric in a sense that, even after researching and diving deeper into some of its visuals and symbolism, there still isn’t much of a dramatic gravitational pull. Whether it’s unsettling singing preachers or clichéd dancing creepy girls, the images are rarely scary. Mark Jenkin is skilled at mimicking the vibrant style of 1970s horror (he’s filming on grainy 16mm here), but because what’s here is so limited in engagement, there’s nothing to elaborate on with that complement.
An outstanding craftsman has made a movie (his second feature-length film) that is as dull as everything his protagonist experiences, at least until the third act, which adds a body horror angle relating to the flowers and a scar on the woman’s body, more frequent shifts in time, and attempts at revealing things about certain characters (there’s a young woman also present with The Volunteer, but for a while, it’s left up to debate who she is and whether she is there or not).
A monument is also built stemming from a tragedy that could relate to The Volunteer. Whatever the case may be, the coastal setting and gorgeous vistas allow for some breathtaking camera zooms and aerial shots. It’s also worth mentioning that Mark Jenkin also serves as the cinematographer, editor, and is also in charge of the sound design.
With that said, there is something undeniably compelling about Enys Men, particularly unpacking this woman’s past and who the characters in specific visions are. However, the glacial pacing, monotony, and nothingness (not to mention a lack of thrills, suspense, and scares) chip away at that interest. Every time The Volunteer returns to that ledger, she might be jotting down that there are no changes to the flowers, but one might want to grab that pencil and note their escalating boredom.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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