Mark Jenkin on Enys Men’s Unsettling Use of Time

Director Mark Jenkin discusses his non-chronological Cornish folk horror film Enys Men.

Enys Men
Photo: Film4

In director Mark Jenkin’s new Cornish folk horror film Enys Men, pronounced “Ennis Mane,” routine is unsettling. Set in 1973 on the uninhabited, eponymous “Stone Island” — as translated from Cornish — each day a nameless Volunteer (played by Mary Woodvine) starts up a generator, makes tea, checks wildflowers, measures soil temperature, and drops a stone in a mine shaft as she listens to hear it drop below. Then she records “No change” in a journal. But then things do begin to change. 

The concept of time begins to fluctuate, even from the film’s early moments for the very observant viewer. Though she is meant to be on the island alone, she begins to encounter, and interact with, either strange visitors, or phantoms. Then there are the lichens. The composite organism appears on the flowers, and begins to appear on her own body. This all takes place as a large stone monument stands sentry outside of her cottage, until it doesn’t.

Filmed on 16MM, Enys Men is grainy, and effectively plays with color, highlighting Woodvine’s icy blue eyes and her red rain slicker, evocative of the one seen in Don’t Look Now (released in 1973, as it happens). Moreover, it feels like a video lost in time, and plays out as if the viewer is witnessing a story told out of sequence, watching the slow unraveling of reality, and of The Volunteer’s sanity. 

Jenkin, who previously won a BAFTA for his film Bait, joined me on a recent episode of the Talking Strange paranormal pop culture show (available on YouTubeApple Podcasts, and Spotify) to discuss his slow-burn film, which premiered in 2022 at Cannes Film Festival. In the following conversation, he shares with me why it is defined as a Cornish Folk Horror, as well as the intentional, and accidental, homages to 1970s horror, and the film’s experiment with the unsettling nature of time.

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Den of Geek: Why would you consider this a Cornish folk forror?

Mark Jenkin: To start with, we needed a label for it. I was pressed to describe it, and the original description was “A lost Cornish folk horror.” Someone on the marketing team said, “Don’t describe it as lost.” Then it was “Cornish folk horror.” I was wary to use the word “horror.” My fear was horror fans might be disappointed by the horror element, and the audience who thought they didn’t like horror wouldn’t see the film. Then we referred to it as “Cornish folk,” which doesn’t mean anything! Then we dropped “folk,” and started calling it a “Cornish film.” 

We’ve gone full circle based on audience reaction, and I’m quite happy calling it a “Cornish folk horror” again. My keenness to call it a Cornish folk horror was down to my own idea that folk horror was kind of like a British, or even an English, subgenre of horror that I didn’t want to really associate with because I didn’t think we were part of that kind of pastoral, merry old England. Because, in Cornwall, we’re not that historically or culturally. I was very keen to put Cornish in there. Since then, I’ve educated myself more, and realize wherever there’s a cinema tradition, there is also a folk tradition. And inevitably, there’s a folk horror tradition. I think, you know, for me, all those words are kind of important. The Cornish-ness of it is important because it’s a Cornish film, it was made in Cornwall. The setting is Cornish.

The lichens appear regularly throughout the movie. They’re a composite organism. Is this a composite ghost story where the land itself is also part of the haunting?

You could read it as that, yeah. A lot of people have talked about the lichen element, and what it is believed to be. We’re still learning about lichens, and its many mysteries. The lichen is kind of central to the theme of the film. For me, more in terms of its timelessness, is its ability to adapt and outlive everything else. But I like your reading.

There is a radio broadcast in the beginning that suggests time is fluid. Is there a time setting to this?

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Well, it’s 1973 as a starting point. Time certainly seems to be moving in all directions rather than just in one direction … When time doesn’t make sense, that’s true horror for me. I remember the first time I saw Don’t Look Now, and where Donald Sutherland sees the barge go by. I remember watching that thinking what’s going on there and being really confused like the character is. Then, 10 minutes later, the penny drops, and there’s just an absolutely chilling moment of time slipping. That stuff really unsettled me.

I’m glad you brought up Don’t Look Now. Like that film, this is a film where color plays an important role with the character. And then aesthetically, this film does feel locked into the early ‘70s. Is this an intentional homage to horror of that era?

I knew that it was going to be set in the early ‘70s. I wanted it to feel of that era without really being too over the top about it. I didn’t think about it when we were shooting it at all. I didn’t think [during filming] “This is a film that is set in the ‘70s.” But the equipment that I use, and the way that I work with that equipment: Using a Bolex camera that’s just there on my shoulder, and it’s clockwork, you can only run the camera for 27 seconds with one wind, it takes 100 foot rolls of film so you’re constantly changing rolls. There’s a fragmented way that I shoot which leads to a lot of montage within the edit. Also not recording any sound, post syncing the sound, using old lenses. That’s all the stuff that I love using, so just through the equipment I choose to use it’s going to have that aesthetic. I don’t have to think about it at all when I’m shooting. I love that era of filmmaking, and there’s no direct homage. But the obvious one is Don’t Look Now.

Hence The Volunteer’s red jacket?

The red jacket wasn’t a deliberate homage. That was something I accidentally walked into because originally Mary’s character was going to have the yellow jacket, and the boatman was going to have the red jacket, so it was going to be the other way around but it quite late on in pre-production, I started to worry that Mary with long brown hair, blue jeans, and a yellow jacket was going to look like Charlotte Ginsburg’s character in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. So, I switched the costumes because I thought, “I don’t want somebody thinking it’s a homage to Antichrist.” Then, very early on in the shoot, the first day, I think, I heard somebody in the art department say to one of the trainees, “Oh, yeah, the costumes are homage to Don’t Look Now.” I was like, well, yeah, of course. I’ve walked straight into that. [Don’t Look Now director] Nick Roeg is one of the masters as far as I’m concerned. I think Roeg’s influence on the film is everywhere. But the red jacket isn’t part of that. That was a genuine, genuine accident I wandered into.

Is there an order to this film where you could arrange it in a linear way?

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You could, but I think it would drive you mad. You might start doing that, and by the time you get to the end, you’ve got everything in place — you get the last end bit in place — and you realize, “Well, if that’s the case, then the beginning doesn’t make sense.” So, you have to switch it around. For me, that’s the thing that intrigues me about time. If you think about it too much, it kind of drives you mad. You just have to experience it and get through it the best you can. There’s no past, and there’s no future. There is only the present moment. The past is just a reimagining from the present moment with a shift in context, and the future is the same. I think that the film kind of works in that space. I hope.

This is a film that demands attention, but it’s also a film that’s going to challenge people. How would you invite people into it?

Oh, wow. Just, I don’t know! I think if I knew that, I’d be working in marketing. I mean, I was talking about this last night, I was talking to Kyle Edward Ball who made Skinamarink, and we were talking about why it’s important to see the film at the cinema rather than seeing it at home. I got to thinking about that last night. Just the idea that there’s something so distinct about going to see a film like this, or Skinamarink, within a theater, and it’s about the cinematic nature of it. It doesn’t mean cinematic in terms of scale of what you’re seeing on the screen, or even anything that you’re seeing on the screen or coming out of speakers, it’s about that environment of being locked in a black box for an hour and a half and experiencing something without distraction. 

I know you can do that at home under certain circumstances. But my thought last night was, the thing about going to the cinema to see a film is, especially with something that unsettled you, when you leave, you’ve got to get yourself home. If that film is continuing to play, and continues to haunt you, it’s got under your skin. For me, that’s a really incredible experience. I remember when I went to see Black Swan. I went to see it on my own in a theater a couple of miles away from where I live. I had to cycle home afterwards, and still now, all these years later, it’s the most vivid memory of cycling back with this film continuing to play in my head. The films that I like, when you leave the theater, they’re still playing in your head. 

With this one, Enys Men is a three-act film. We just didn’t shoot the third act, so the third act is for the audience to play out in their head when they leave the cinema. I know that approach isn’t for everybody. But for those that do respond to those films, I think this will be a good experience.

Finally, I wanted to ask about The Volunteer. With so little dialogue, and with so few characters, everything is resting on Mary’s performance. What was the process of pulling her in on this, and being the right person for The Volunteer.

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It’s an incredible performance. I always said to her, if this film works, it will be down to your performance. And if it doesn’t work, it will be my responsibility. I think that is always the case with filmmaking, It’s not an actor’s medium in terms of the control, ultimately. I have to control it, but I can only make a good film if she gives me the building blocks to create that. And I always knew that, you know,

I wrote the film for her, and then went through quite a lengthy casting process because I thought it was too obvious to cast her in it. Then gradually went all around the houses and came back, and just said I wrote this film for you, it should be you. I now know there’s no way I could have made this film without Mary. Everybody says that because, once the film is finished, you can’t picture the film with somebody else in it. But I genuinely think if it was with somebody else, we’d still be shooting it now. Her and I have got quite a very strong shorthand. She knows what I want, and what I can do, and I know what she’s capable of, and we can push each other. That’s where we got this kind of performance from. She has been a theater actor. Predominantly, she grew up in a kind of a theater family. Obviously, with theater acting, you rely on dialogue, and on big gestures. But the way I work, there’s very few words, there’s very little room for gesture. All of that internal stuff is going on as she’s built a character, and if it can’t come out through words, and through gesture, it comes out through the eyes. And I think that’s why I think it’s such a great performance.

Enys Men is now available in select cinemas.

For more from this conversation, and to check out other paranormal personalities, celebrities, and authors talking about the the unexplained and high strangeness, subscribe to Talking Strange on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and YouTube, hosted by Aaron Sagers of Netflix’s 28 Days Haunted and discovery+/Travel Channel’s Paranormal Caught on Camera.