Review: Enys Men


A woman (Mary Woodvine – “Bait”) wearing a red windbreaker makes her way across blustery hills of heather and sedge, then down to the edge of a cliff where six strange flowers grow. These are rare plants on this Cornish island and her job is to measure the temperature and record any changes in them.

We watch her go through her monotonous round: rise, run generator, make tea, check the rare plant for changes (none) return home, record her findings, make dinner, turn off a generator, go to bed and read “A blueprint for Survival,” a small book – evidently her only one – with the word “nightmarish” in its descriptive subtitle. Tomorrow: repeat. And so it goes. Occasionally, she receives messages from the mainland on a very scratchy two-way radio, and she does listen to a small AM radio for music and some spoken programs.

However, aside from this dull routine there is more – much more. We are treated to the gorgeous if stark Cornish island countryside. Cornwall is the southwester tip of England, with its own language. We are shown the crashing sea, gulls and other birds, the early spring plants beginning to bloom, beautifully rugged rock outcroppings and cliffs. And lichens. Fabulous in their variety and, if you’ve ever paid attention to them, growing seemingly out of nothing. No soil for these hardy composites of algae and fungi. You see them growing on bare rock, brick, wood timbers and tree branches. They grow slowly, but are prolific and rich enough to sustain reindeer (caribou) during the winter months.

There’s still more. Here and there are the remains of buildings and rails used to support a long-closed tin mine. In fact, the hard rock miners of Cornwall are considered the best in the world. Another crumbling ruin is all that is left of the local church. But now, the island is deserted except for this one volunteer naturalist. Finally, there is a figure that looms over the cottage where the naturalist lives: a 12 foot stone figure looking out to sea (even as the woman looks out to sea on her daily visit to the rare plant), and dedicated to those who lost their lives there. This is reported on her AM radio as she goes about her daily routine.

As days turn into weeks and we approach the end of April other people, or memories, or spirits, begin to appear. These are by turn companionable or frightening. Are they the product of a decaying mind or something elemental to the island she alone inhabits? The teenage girl who seems to share her cottage with her (Flo Crowe); the bible-toting clergyman (John Woodvine – “Burke and Hare”); the boatman (Edward Rowe – “Bait”); and others.

Writer/director Mark Jenkin (“Bait”) has accomplished several things with this production: he has given us a delicious if spare feast of images that educate us on the look and feel of Cornwall; he has done this in a way that gradually builds a sense of dread, even in the ordinary events of the day; and he has succeeded in drawing the viewer in as a participant in the ever more nightmarish world of Enys Men.

Cinematography and editing are excellent. Direction, especially the small things about how Mary Woodvine carries herself and changes or holds an expression is flawless. On the other hand, I don’t know how he would handle multiple, fully involved, actors. The only disappointment is the music, which while clearly intended to establish an off-balance mental state, is instead strident and irritating. An exception to this is a beautiful choral piece on the radio, sung in the Cornish tongue.

Some reviewers have complained about the lack of action and dialogue. This isn’t that kind of film. It is a dream scape set in the very real world of a windblown rocking island (Enys Men is Cornish for Stone Island). Like a dream, actions are repeated and simple tasks seem to take a long time, or conversely, pass in an instant.

For those who insist their entertainment be served in a brown paper bag adorned with golden arches, this movie will not suit their palate.

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