Enys Men, the Eerie Cornish Folk-Horror About a Wildlife Volunteer

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Enys Men, 2023
Enys Men, 2023© Steve Tanner

Following 2019’s Bait, Mark Jenkin returns to Cornwall for a film exploring loss, ecological catastrophe, and the supernatural. Here, he talks about making Enys Men and the surprising perks of Cornish filmmaking

It may only be January, but in Cornwall no film will be as hotly anticipated as Enys Men this year. Mark Jenkin’s trippy folk horror stars Mary Woodvine as a wildlife volunteer who starts to lose her grip on reality while working on a fictional uninhabited island. It’s a beautifully paced work of tension exploring loss, looming ecological catastrophe, the metaphysics of the quotidian and eventually, the supernatural.

After making its debut at Cannes last year, the film goes on national release this week with an accompanying season at BFI Southbank, The Cinematic DNA of Enys Men, where the director picks works from Agnès Varda, Chantal Akerman, David Lynch and screenwriter Nigel Kneale as influences. It’s all a far cry from when Jenkin was editing his debut feature, Bait, five years ago.

“It’s difficult to imagine now but nobody was waiting for that film,” says Jenkin from his home in Newlyn, near the westernmost tip of the county. “I spent every day thinking, ‘What the fuck am I doing with my life? Nobody’s going to want to watch this black-and-white 16mm hand-processed film about Cornish fishermen.’” Bait, seemingly from nowhere, won the outstanding British debut at the Baftas in 2020, picking up a raft of five-star reviews in the broadsheets from the likes of Mark Kermode. It’s a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact the low-budget film was shot entirely in the county Jenkin grew up in, and was made with Cornish money too.

“People still ask me when I’m going to move away to further my career,” he says, sounding resigned to the disappointment of these interactions. “There’s a certain generation with this institutionalised attitude towards the place that they call home. And it’s depressing because people have just been beaten down and the ambition has been kicked out of them.”

Jenkin moved to London in the mid-90s to the heart of the UK film industry, and admits he spent the next six years attempting to get back home again. When he returned to the county in the early 2000s, he found a wonderfully wayward though quietly thriving little film industry in Cornwall, where people were shooting “batshit” films that had their own charm thanks to the lack of doing it the prescribed way. “I would say that the filmmaking in Cornwall is great because of the limitations of living here. Everybody does more than one thing to get by, and that’s really permeated into the filmmaking, where the roles are all blurred. I do a bit of everything and everybody else on the crew does a bit of everything, so there’s a self-sufficiency there.”

Shot in granular colour in contrast to Bait, Enys Men will seem eerily familiar for anyone who grew up in 1970s Cornwall, from the mining stacks and mineshafts to the cuckoo spit nestling in gorse bushes and the songs of folk legend Brenda Wootton playing on the radio (full disclosure: I grew up a stone’s throw away from Ding Dong mine, with the Mên-an-Tol stone circle and the Merry Maidens within touching distance). “That’s what film does so well,” says Jenkin, who was recently conferred as Falmouth University’s first distinguished professor of film practice and who talks eloquently on the phone about the dark arts of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. “It captures the atmosphere of your memory, your subconscious, the dream state and all of that.” 

Critics have pounced on the fact that Enys Men is set in 1973, the same year that British (oc)cult classics Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man were released. Jenkin sprinkles references to both throughout his new film, but says the reason he chose that year is more arbitrary: “It sounds flippant, but I like the way the seven and the three look together on the page.” As for the term ‘folk horror’, much bandied-about of late, he was initially reluctant to get on board given some of the baggage associated with the genre, at least until he spoke to his producer Denzil Monk. “There’s this slightly dangerous territory of merrie olde England,” says Jenkin, “because we’ve got a whole movement within the British Isles that wants to go back to an idealised time which didn’t actually exist. And I think folk horror gets a bit caught up in all of that. At first I rejected the folk horror label and it was actually Denzil who said, ‘Let’s call ourselves Cornish folk-horror.’ And if you watch [Kier-La Janisse’s 2021]  documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, you’ll realise that every country has its own folk horror cinema.”

Does Jenkin see Cornwall as his muse, in the way that Godard is synonymous with Paris or Scorsese with New York? “I never consciously think of it as being a muse or an inspiration or anything, it’s just the place where I set my work, because the most important thing for me is that it’s authentic,” he says. “With Bait, I think the authenticity came through even though it was a very specific geographical location. Early on in the process, I was thinking the film was so specific that people [up the road] in Redruth and Camborne might not understand it. But what actually happened was that I went around the world with it and people in Manhattan, Melbourne and Istanbul all recognised the universality at the heart of that film.”

Fittingly, the films that form the DNA of Enys Men at the BFI Southbank are not always the ones you’d expect. Varda’s 1975 film Daguerréotypes, for instance, is set in the new wave auteur’s 14th arrondissement street and stars the baker, the tailor, the butcher and the local pub. “I think it’s probably my favourite film in terms of editing,” he says. “It’s just an editing masterclass.” Jenkin also chose Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, until recently a fairly obscure slow-cinema classic starring Delphine Seyrig that was beloved of a small band of critics and rarely seen on the big screen. “I programmed it thinking I’ve given this gift to the audience to see it,” says Jenkin. “And then in the meantime it gets voted the greatest film of all time by Sight and Sound and now you can’t move for cinema screenings of the bloody thing.”  

Enys Men is out in UK cinemas on January 13.