Review: ‘Enys Men,’ starring Mary Woodvine

October 1, 2022

by Carla Hay

Mary Woodvine in “Enys Men” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Enys Men”

Directed by Mark Jenkin

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1973, off the coast of Cornwall, England, the horror movie “Enys Men” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A volunteer researcher goes through mysterious rituals while studying a group of wildflowers, as nightmarish visions from the past seem to haunt her.

Culture Audience: “Enys Men” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching artsy and enigmatic horror movies where the movie’s plot is a mystery for viewers to solve.

Mary Woodvine in “Enys Men” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Steeped in 1970s cinema nostalgia, “Enys Men” is a unique horror movie that’s presented as a puzzle for viewers to figure out on their own. People who want a straightforward horror story will be disappointed. Viewers who like mysteries will be challenged. It’s a movie that looks deceptively disjointed, but it actually requires complete attention from viewers, in order for the clues to tie everything together as the story goes along.

Written and directed by Mark Jenkin, “Enys Men’ reunites Jenkin with Mary Woodvine and Edward Rowe, who also co-starred in Jenkin’s BAFTA-winning 2019 drama “Bait.” In “Bait,” Rowe played the role of the movie’s protagonist. In “Enys Men,” Woodvine is the movie’s central character. “Enys Men” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in France and its North American premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City.

Jenkin is also the cinematographer and editor of “Enys Men.” He used 16mm film to make the movie look like it was actually filmed in 1973. In this strange story, where all of the characters do not have names, Woodvine plays a character listed in the end credits as The Volunteer. She is woman in her 50s, living by herself in a remote cottage located off of the coast of Cornwall, England.

The movie, which takes place from April to May 1973, shows that The Volunteer has a journal, where she’s been keeping a daily record of what she is there to observe. In each journal entry, she notes the outdoor temperature, which ranges from 14.2 to 14.5 degrees Celsius, which is about 57 degrees Fahrenheit. However, what she’s really observing is a group of wildflowers growing on a cliffside near the cottage.

Up until a certain point in the movie, her journal entries note “No change in temperature” next to each listed temperature, even though the temperature does slightly change during the course of the month. The Volunteer also wears the same clothes every day: a red wind jacket, a beige sweater, blue jeans and hiking shoes. She usually walks on the same path every day to get to the flowers on the cliffs.

Every day, she also goes through a ritual of dropping a rock into a nearby well. The water in the well can be heard when the rock splashes into it. The Volunteer has a CB radio, which she uses to communicate with unnamed people and where she also receives messages. early on in the movie, The Volunteer gets a message from a man on the radio. He tells her that he’ll be there before the end of the week. She gives a small smile in response.

Throughout “Enys Men,” there are visions of other people who disrupt The Volunteer’s daily routine. The movie plays guessing games with viewers over whether not these people are ghosts or are hallucinations from The Volunteer. Look beneath the surface, and the story can eventually be pieced together.

A teenage girl (played by Flo Crowe), who’s listed in the movie’s end credits as The Girl, keeps appearing. The Volunteer sometimes sees this girl, who does not speak. A major clue about who this girl is revealed later in the story. Hint: It has to do with a diagonal scar across her abdomen and how she got the scar.

Meanwhile, The Volunteer tells The Girl: “Please don’t climb up there. I don’t want to keep telling you, but I have to.” The Girl seems to have psychic abilities because she knows in advance what The Volunteer is saying and ends up repeating the same words simultaneously.

The Volunteer also encounters a character listed in the end credits as The Boatman (played by Rowe), who visits The Volunteer and seems to have a romantic interest in her. (There’s a brief scene of The Volunteer and The Boatman having sex up against a wall.) At one point, The Boatman sees a wildflower in a drinking glass of water on a table in the cottage. The Boatman tells The Volunteer, “I thought you weren’t supposed to pick them.” She answers, “I’m not. I’m not here on my own.”

In a nearby chapel, The Volunteer sees a dedication plaque listing the names of the seven men who were lost at sea on a lifeboat in May 1897. And when seven men in identical hooded fisherman’s outfits suddenly appear on the cliffs, it’s easy to deduce who they are. But what exactly are they doing there?

“Enys Men” has several references to lichen, a plant-like organism that has symbiotic association with algae or cyanobacteria. It’s another big clue that makes sense when certain visuals are presented in the movie. A scene with a preacher (played by John Woodvine, Mary Woodvine’s real-life father) in the chapel is a pivotal moment.

“Enys Men” is not supposed to be a showcase for memorable conversations, since most of the movie shows The Volunteer by herself, and the movie intentionally wants viewers to feel a sense of foreboding isolation in a remote area that The Volunteer eventually feels. Because there isn’t a lot of dialogue in “Enys Men,” viewers have to carefully observe the actions of the movie’s characters. It’s also a slow-paced movie that doesn’t have a lot of jump scares but is more of a psychological mystery.

“Enys Men” has some haunting images that will either intrigue or frustrate viewers (or maybe do both), because this movie does not present easy answers about the story’s narrative and what it all means. It might seem chaotic and confusing, but there’s a method to the madness. The purpose of “Enys Men” becomes clear to viewers who have the patience to pay attention and deduce what this movie is trying to say about human beings’ connection to nature.

UPDATE: Neon will release “Enys Men” in select U.S. cinemas on March 31, 2023. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on January 13, 2023.

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