On an isolated island off England’s Cornish coast, a solitary woman, known only as The Volunteer (Mary Woodvine), performs an unvarying ritual. Each day, she trudges to a rocky cliff top to examine a crop of strange-looking flowers. On the way back to her primitive cottage, she drops a stone into an empty mine shaft and fires up her generator, a small transistor radio her only link to the outside world. It seems appropriate that her bedtime reading is “A Blueprint for Survival.”
Cryptic and beguiling, Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men (Cornish for “Stone Island” and pronounced “Ennis Main”) is a slow, seductive meditation on place and memory. Shaped by the woman’s excursions, the movie builds a repetitive, hypnotic rhythm that’s underscored by her daily notations of “No change” in a small notebook. The entries are dated 1973, yet slippery temporal shifts are disrupting her research and our understanding of the narrative. Like the woman’s increasingly upsetting visions, these time warps seem related to the eerie, vaguely human-shaped standing stone that looms over the island, a memorial to a past seafaring tragedy.
Drawing from the region’s deep vein of Celtic mythology, Jenkin summons the ghosts of lost fishermen and long-gone female mine workers, known as bal maidens, stoking an atmosphere thick with ancient anguish. As a mossy growth spreads from the flowers to the woman’s body, the film’s editing grows more jagged, its rough and rocky landscape — captured on breathtakingly evocative 16-millimeter film — increasingly alien and unnerving. At times, Jenkin’s bold, experimental style can perplex; but his vision is so unwavering and beholden to local history that his message is clear: On Enys Men, the earth remembers what the sea has taken.