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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Enys Men"

Enys Men is a brand new film, made during COVID lockdown with a skeleton crew, but it looks uncannily like a curiosity of the heady 1970s. Writer-director Mark Jenkin has said he wanted to give it the feeling of an artifact, a film made decades ago and forgotten about, and it is itself about mysterious, long-buried things burrowing up from the earth.

It is a film of maddening repetition, until it isn’t. It begins in the spring of 1973. A woman, referred to in the credits as the Volunteer, lives alone on a verdant British island in a cozy cottage. Every morning, the Volunteer treks down to a rocky outcropping and measures the soil surrounding a small bunch of distinctive white flowers. Then she drops a rock into an abandoned mine, and listens as it falls and falls and falls before landing with a thud.

For the first half hour of this film, we see this routine over and over again. Of course, Jenkin is establishing a pattern so that he can eventually subvert it, and soon the tranquility of the isle is disturbed by ghostly figures that reflect the fraught pasts of both the island and of the Volunteer herself. Perhaps the monolithic standing stone, engraved with horrors of the past and which exudes an odd power, is somehow responsible.

There’s a ruthless economy to Enys Men, whose title is in the Cornish language and translates to “stone island.” The actress Mary Woodvine is the only person on screen for most of the short runtime. There is hardly any dialogue. The long stretches of silence are occasionally punctured by jolts of static from a two-way radio and the rattling of a gas generator.

But it’s also woozy and cerebral, like a dream that could, at any moment, veer into a nightmare. It’s as if Jenkin took a number of psychological horror classics of the ’60s and ’70s and fed them into a disassociation machine; individual moments recall The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now, Repulsion, Picnic at Hanging Rock. I was also reminded of Robert Altman’s undersung Images, another nightmare about a woman troubled by the isolation of the countryside.

Jenkin has been independently producing narratives and documentaries for the last couple decades, shooting on battered film stock and creating their warbly soundscapes entirely in post-production. His 2019 feature Bait was a critical sensation in the UK, a small-scale drama filmed in black-and-white on a hand-cranked Bolex camera, a visual style that unmoored it from its contemporary setting.

Like Bait, Enys Men occupies its own wobbly sense of space and time. This is a movie that aims to lull you into its singular rhythms, and there were moments when I felt that hypnotic pull. But I also felt like the movie had emptied its own bag of tricks before it was over. It is long on atmosphere and short on story, and while I admire Jenkin’s vision, I didn’t fall in love with the completed picture. And yet I’d recommend it as a piece of art: You can luxuriate in its visual textures, marvel at its startling colors, stare at the expressions on Mary Woodvine’s face, and disappear into an era that has long faded from memory. Or, maybe, that era never really existed at all.

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Nathan Weinbender is a film critic and one of the regular co-hosts for Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101.