In periods of great distress and isolation, it’s often said that one of the most effective remedies can be a strict routine, forcing yourself to fill the hours of your day in a structured, even productive way to keep your mind occupied. Enys Men, the eerie but only intermittently involving follow up to Bait from Cornish director Mark Jenkin, begins just as these routines begin to fail, unravelling the mental state of a lonely woman on a remote Cornish island.
This island is the titular Enys Men (meaning ‘Rock Island’ in the Cornish dialect), inhabited exclusively by an unnamed woman (Mary Woodvine) who, in the Spring of 1973, has been assigned to take on a vague job assessing the soil of the island, a crackling radio connection to the mainland her only human company. She’s put faith in her routine – always donning the same jumper and jacket to study the same cliffside patch of soil, dropping a rock down an old tin mine and making sure it always falls to the same depth, before going home to start her petrol generator, make a pot of tea and order new supplies from the local boatman (Edward Rowe).
Before the potential supernatural even kicks, though, in she’s haunted, visited by ghostly apparitions of a surly teenage girl (Flo Crowe) who may be a vision of a daughter or even the woman’s past self. Soon, she’s hearing more insidious noises, all seemingly emanating from an oddly shaped stone directly in front of her house which seems, impossibly, to move overnight. It’s initially spooky stuff, and Jenkin gets significant mileage out of the way time can shift and crack in moments of extreme loneliness – in a place where nothing pays the time any mind (the only animals, even, are mere occasional glimpses of sea birds), it has no obligation to move in its typical linear fashion.
About halfway through Enys Men, this fear shifts into frustration. Though there are some nice moments in which Jenkin builds out his spectral world (the woman is eventually haunted by not only her past, but the history of Cornwall itself), everything is kept so vague for so long that it becomes hard to hold on to your patience. Jenkin keeps the question open of whether everything might just be in this lonely woman’s head – she starts seeing her own face appearing across the island and lichen appears to be growing out of a large scar on her stomach – but the horrors themselves aren’t scary enough to invest you that deeply in the mystery.
It does all look and sound fantastic, Jenkin shooting on 16mm to capture that old English folk horror feel and saturating the frame with the beautiful colours of the Cornish coast, whilst he repeats the trick of Bait of having every single sound, from dialogue to footsteps, added in post-production instead of recorded on set. The result is a jagged, discordant soundscape that sets you on edge more than any of the visual frights. There is a downside to this, though, this uncanny feeling keeping you at an even further remove from this already distant film. Whereas similar techniques in Bait added a hint of the thrillingly surreal to a grounded, concrete story of regional class struggle in modern Britain, here there’s very little to hold on to, ironic for a film whose horrors originate in the earthy depths of island ground.