I’m on an Island
This article appeared in the March 30, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Enys Men (Mark Jenkin, 2022)
A solitary island off the coast of Cornwall proves the perfect place for a mind to unravel in Enys Men, Mark Jenkin’s ambitious, slippery follow-up to his 2019 breakthrough, Bait. While both films probe the historical and cultural specificities of this unique region of the U.K., this new work also plays with genre conventions, privileging repetition and rhythm over narrative to conjure up an atmosphere of dread. Jenkin’s take on the horror film is both regionally precise and curiously untethered from explanation, a slow-build freak-out that finds terror in the progressive collapsing of boundaries. Animal, mineral, and vegetable; past, present, and future; reality and projection: there’s no chance of escape when all these categories start flowing together. What could be more frightening than that?
It’s April 1973, and an unnamed middle-aged woman (played by Mary Woodvine and dubbed “the volunteer” in the end credits) is working in some deliberately vague capacity on an otherwise uninhabited isle (the film’s title is Cornish for “Stone Island”). The tasks she carries out are hardly strenuous—just daily trips over the moorland to the cliffs on the other side, to observe the flowers there and record the temperature, and dutifully enter this scant data into a logbook. There’s more than enough time for her to pass by the abandoned tin mine on the way home and drop a pebble into the wood-lined shaft, or admire the standing stone on the horizon in front of her ivy-draped cottage, the only building on the island not in ruins. Her modest dwelling is powered by a petrol generator that enables her to make tea, listen to the radio, and sporadically communicate with the mainland via a battered transmitter.
Jenkin breaks this diurnal routine into a series of repeated shots that he enmeshes with images of the landscape and its textures, all of it captured on ravishing, hand-developed 16mm film stock that chimes aptly with the era. Our nameless heroine’s boots on the steps by the mine, the open shaft and the pebble in her hand, her handwritten entries in the logbook, the standing stone that always seems in view, and the boiling kettle fuse with waves smashing against rocks, heather and gorse swaying in the breeze, birds circling in pink and blue skies, and fingers of lichen creeping over any exposed surface. Action and setting combine into one single flow.
These images are constantly linked back to the volunteer’s subjectivity via the many shots of her face, even as she remains a deliberate cipher: we never learn who she is, why she is there, or what she is thinking. The soundtrack provides another source of rhythm, gliding between the unadorned aural atmosphere of the island (birdsong, wind, water), gently ominous drone music composed by Jenkin, and surges of diegetic noise—the thick static of the transmitter, the shrieking kettle, the clattering generator, the ticking clock, and the muffled words and tinny-sounding music emanating from the radio. These are accentuated and layered by the sound design in such a way that it feels like the viewer is hearing them as the volunteer does, creating an intimacy with the character that makes up for the absence of obvious psychology.
The care that Jenkin lavishes on establishing and merging routine and place gives the distinct impression that a sense of “normality” is being constructed only to be subsequently dismantled. Hints of instability impinge upon the film from the outset, like the sudden, unexplained shot of the face of the man later seen bringing supplies to the island; or the inexplicable presence of a teenage girl in the cottage, who may or may not be real, and by whom the volunteer seems oddly unfazed; or the radio report mentioning the man lost in the old miners’ quay of the abandoned island of Enys Men on May 1, 1973—a date at this point still in the future.
These filaments of disquiet start burrowing into the woman’s reality, as she begins to hear folk songs outside the cottage and the clanks of mining machinery inside the cliff—disturbances that eventually flower into full-on visions of the island’s historical inhabitants. The volunteer is an active participant in these reveries: she sees herself thrust back into the past and forward into a future in which the cottage is a ruin, though what was and what’s to come are increasingly hard to differentiate as the images themselves start recursing. And then there’s the small matter of the lichen, which, in addition to growing on the flowers, fans out along a deep scar across the woman’s stomach. The relationship between subject and object of observation breaks down; looking at something for too long becomes much the same as looking at yourself.
The logbook entries—which remain the same day after day until the flowers start mutating—are reminiscent of Jack Torrance’s typewritten pages in The Shining (1980), while the volunteer’s red jacket cannot help but evoke memories of the ghostly child in Don’t Look Now (1973). Enys Men shares these films’ interest in exploring how alienation from the familiar can fracture the mind and pull temporal order apart, but Jenkin shows far more disdain for exposition than Kubrick and Roeg do. The film’s closing stages forego any narrative resolution, spiraling instead into thrilling, associative chaos that might frustrate anyone looking for more predictable horror thrills—even if bloodcurdling screams are very much part of the experience.
In the absence of clear guidelines for interpretation, however, other clues for grasping what is happening drift to the fore. The volunteer’s bedside reading offers a rich seam of possibility to this end: Edward Goldsmith’s A Blueprint for Survival (1972), an influential early environmentalist tract whose arguments for radical change are just as relevant today, with Cornwall proving a most apt example of its concerns. As the Industrial Revolution took hold in the region, tunnels were blasted through stone, iron posts were slammed into soil, and natural commodities were ripped from the earth without regard for the scars left behind. The communities established in this inhospitable terrain to carry out this work were left bereft of function once the ore dried up. Who can blame a landscape now equal parts natural and artificial for wanting to pull human subjects into the swirling currents of its traumatic history? Humankind and nature can never be separated, no matter how violent our attempts. The lichen is a fitting metaphor: part animal, part vegetable; it grows on stone, it grows on flesh. Everything will be covered.
James Lattimer is a critic and programmer based in Berlin.