Mark Jenkin’s attempt to repeat the success of Bait is a disorienting, alienating tale of isolation and memory. Here’s our Enys Men review:
Why do we watch films? Some films are purely entertaining; some are challenging and tough to watch. Some films we’ll forget as soon as the end credits roll, and some stay with us for days, months, years even. We often try to find points or elements in the film that we can relate to or apply to our own lives; we make meaning of the collection of images on the screen.
Unfortunately, that’s all Mark Jenkin’s new film is, a collection of images. There is an admirable effort to try and explore memory, trauma, violence even, but Enys Men is a lot of work to watch. Jenkin is pushing us to make meaning in these random scenes, presented perhaps out of order and mostly without dialogue.
A female wildlife volunteer (Mary Woodvine) has a strict routine to her days; go check on the rare flowers near the cliffs, return home and drop a stone into a well. Note down if anything has changed with the flowers. Jumpstart the generator, and make a cup of tea. Her days are spent in solitude and silence, but her perception of reality soon falters.
It’s hard to say what in Enys Men is real and what isn’t. It’s unsettling, for sure, but Enys Men is also the cinematic equivalent of falling down a cliff and desperately trying to grab something to hold on to. Except there isn’t anything, and you continue to slip to your death or, in this case, a nap as the film drones on.
There is genius here too. The immersive sound design creates a creepy atmosphere, and there is poetry in all the strangeness, but it’s such a chore to see it. While films should never spoon-feed you information and meaning, a film this challenging and difficult to read can become off-putting rather than fascinating.
Certainly, Enys Men is fascinating at first, but that fascination quickly turns into boredom. There are no rewards at the end of Jenkin’s film; we don’t need an explanation, but the audience needs a payoff of some sort to feel like they’ve just invested their time into something rather than wasted it.
Jenkin once again, as he did with Bait, creates an overwhelming sensory experience with Enys Men. This is a stylish and assured film, but Jenkin relies too heavily on mood and atmosphere alone. It’s a classic case of style over substance.
In the lead role, Mary Woodvine is spellbinding, but the simplified script leaves her mostly just performing tasks rather than communicating real emotions. Filmed in lovely grainy 16mm film, Enys Men has texture to its images and Jenkin has a knack for framing his actors. It’s a shame it never comes together as well and coherently as it should.
Enys Men screens at the BFI London Film Festival and is released in UK cinemas January 13, 2023.