Three years on his from his standout feature Bait – a remarkable vision of gentrification in a small Cornish fishing village, shot on 16mm film in black and white– director Mark Jenkin returns with a 70s-set folk horror that takes place on a desolate island off the coast of Cornwall. Once again filmed on 16mm, Enys Men differs slightly, filled as it is with the vivid colours of the surrounding waters, the island's flora and ‘The Volunteer's' vivid red coat – perhaps a nod to the Nicolas Roeg's 70s psychological thriller Don't Look Now.
Played by Mary Woodvine, The Volunteer's role seems to be the observation of a small bunch of flowers, perched delicately by the edge of the cliffs. Each day she takes the temperature of the soil and notes down any observations. Alone on a windswept island, she must also undertake the day-to-day tasks required in order to make cups of tea or food or use the transistor radio to contact the mainland. Turn, twist, pull, touch, push, blow, fill – The Volunteer's life is a physical one reliant on tangible objects and cause-and-effect processes. The radio calls, she answers. Each day she superstitiously drops a rock down an old mining shaft, waiting to hear the sound as it hits the bottom. The rock falls – it creates a splash. Rituals of sorts.
Yet this self-imposed seclusion brings with it all the boredom and madness of solitude as she becomes tormented by a world she can't quite grasp. Across from her house, an imposing stone pillar stands in her eyeline, at times appearing as though a cloaked woman in the distance. Inspired by the 19 stones of the Merry Maidens – a stone circle close to Jenkin's grandmother's house – the island's mossy rock hints at a pagan past. One that seeps into its core. The 19 stones are said to be the remains of a group of young girls who were unduly punished for dancing on a Sunday. It's a myth that's stuck with the director, and as such his camera seems drawn to the rock with an intrinsic fascination. At the top of the hill, looking down on the volunteer's cottage, it's a past that's inescapable.
Panicked by the appearance of lichen on one of the flowers – a composite organism often described as being a type of moss – The Volunteer's fractured mind begins to collapse. Images of herself as a young girl and of a man bleed into the film. She sees the lichen begin to grow on a childhood scar across her own stomach. Around her are the ghosts of maids, miners, drowned sailors and godly men from the island's past, haunting only in their banality. They merge with her vision of the island, as if archival footage had been found and pieced together with no guidance or linear thread. Like the waves that crash upon the surrounding cliffs, solitude washes away The Volunteer's sense of certainty.
The disquieting horror here is not in the narrative, but in the form. Jenkin's uses all his tricks to bring the island to life, a sentient being consuming any and all signs of its human history. As the island threatens to overwhelm, Jenkin's breaks out into genuinely frightening territory – but only the once – and it's this restraint that seems to hold back a film capable of much more. It's a bold, atmospheric piece of work more content as an artistic oddity. It would not feel out of place as an art installation. And though Jenkin's seems reluctant to thrust in any discernible direction, the film is an irresistible series of layers, textures and dissonant sounds that lingers in the mind.
Throughout, The Volunteer reads an influential environmentalist textbook from 1972, A Blueprint for Survival, by Edward Goldsmith. The cover features a pull-quote from the Sunday Times that reads, rather aptly, ‘Nightmarishly convincing…after reading it nothing seems quite the same any more'
Enys Men releases in UK Cinemas on January 13th