Something stirs anew down Cornwall way. Writer-director Mark Jenkin is so far away from Britfilm's London epicentre that he's been allowed to get on with doing entirely his own thing. Bait, his surprise hit of 2019, was a key text of post-Brexit cinema, centred on a clash between the South-West's haves (tourists) and have-nots (local fishermen), but also scratchily artisanal, hand-turned, and at least notionally hard to sell. Follow-up Enys Men - pronounced "ennis mane", and the Kernow for "stone island" - ventures even further out there: it's striking folk horror, shot in the Academy ratio and once more using emphatic post-synch sound, about a middle-aged scientist in a bright red raincoat (Mary Woodvine) who comes to a remote isle to study flowers and inevitably discovers more besides. The year, we're informed by the scientist's journal entries, is 1973. The look - wet-paint Kodachrome, distressed in transit - is very 1973. The film could well have been engineered in the media studies department of an emergent polytechnic circa 1973: post-Performance, (just) pre-Wicker Man and Don't Look Now, blurring uncannily with Government public-information shorts of that period. You could retitle it Don't Go Picking Wildflowers. Or Don't Go Dropping Stones into Wells. Stop Poking Your Nose In Where It's Not Wanted. No good, clearly, can follow from our heroine's tramping around. A lot of interest, however, is coming out of Jenkin's fascination with long-abandoned movie technique.
Watching on from 2023, your head inevitably floods with the notes a latter-day producer would pass Jenkin had they the schedule and patience for the seven-hour train journey to Mevagissey. Doubtless, said producer would want someone younger and more conventionally sexy in the lead role, a name or cover girl of sorts; doubtless, they would want a slicker, tighter and tidier film, geared to reassure the nervy. Enys Men isn't completely removed from recent developments in British horror, though - it'd tesselate with Ben Wheatley's rural ventures - and it's not as though Jenkin's images are impenetrable or unreadable. Straight-ahead, static in their framing, with prominent primary colours, they're not unlike building blocks. For one, we take from them a sense that something unsettling is going on beneath the surface of this island, and possibly under our heroine's skin to boot. Yet the magic (and mystery) lies in how Jenkin shuffles and re-pairs them. The movie carries us somewhere and conveys information and meaning as it does, but it does so via a determinedly poetic and allusive path - it takes the scenic route. (Kudos to the film's actual producers at Film4, who must have been faced with a lot of baffling, unsynched footage early on, and then had to sit tight on restless hands while Jenkin cast his spell in the edit suite.)
Literally scenic, yes: the major advantage Jenkin has working this patch is a landscape that - as those damn tourists likely wouldn't shut up about - invites its own fascination and contemplation, that in its olde-worlde odds-and-ends (stone pillars, crags, ruins, harbours) doesn't appear to have changed for at least a half-century. Still, this is not the cosy-sweatered tourist-trap cinema of the Fisherman's Friends franchise - the unthinking person's Bait, or the kind of intrusion Bait was warning us about. Somewhere in this knowingly rickety bricolage of images, there lurks a treatise on what it really means to set foot on this particular stretch of the English coastline, but we're never led there by the hand or nose; rather, Jenkin sets the viewer to a form of beachcombing. He lays his story out in rough-hewn, possibly incomplete fragments - like building blocks buried beneath the sand for several decades - and then invites us to see how they match up, where they make their own kind of sense. A toe on a tap begets a petrol can being unscrewed; a scar on a woman's torso parallels a crack in a windowpane; those stones plummeting down that well rhyme with a body crashing through a skylight. Our fictional producer hates all this, because this truly interactive cinema hands far too much power and responsibility over to the consumer: we're too busy turning all this information over to nip out for more nachos. A handful of films into his career, Jenkin is either broadcasting from an alternative timeline - one where Nic Roeg is still more celebrated than Richard Curtis - or reconstructing our own cinema singlehandedly from scratch. Either way, it remains quite the project.
Enys Men is now showing in selected cinemas.