Director Mark Jenkin reflects on Cornish history and folk horror.
Enys Men is a film that can be difficult to grasp. Some take it as a ghost story, others as an allegory for nature, and some simply see a woman living on a remote Cornish island. But the film is beautiful in its mystery. When I spoke with director Mark Jenkin about the film, he told me that he wants the film to be a kind of communication: “I love films that you have to engage and research and end up projecting yourself onto to find the meaning. By definition, communication has to be two-way, so if you’re doing as much work as the film’s doing then I think that’s a really exciting experience”.
The film is Jenkin’s second feature, his first being the widely acclaimed Bait, and I asked Jenkin if he worried that the film might not connect in the same way due to its lack of a traditional narrative. “A lot of films do fall down, not on the quality of the writing or the performance or the technical side of it, just the fact they don’t sit in an authentic space”, and it is this authenticity that really makes Jenkin’s films feel special.
Not willing to give away his interpretation of the film, Jenkin told me how after a Q&A tour across the UK, he realised that people can find different meanings after multiple viewings that he never noticed when he was writing and editing the film. This made me think about the idea of the auteur and whether Jenkin would consider himself one, but he sees it as being a backhanded compliment, or even a dirty word. While Jenkin writes, produces, directs, edits, scores and works on the sound design of the film, he still finds it hard to claim full ownership of the process. I ask him if his films are more a work of collaboration, to which he agrees. He talks of the Volunteer character, played by Mary Woodvine, as an example of this: “At a very basic level I can’t do anything without the actors, and it’s the actors that become the characters.” Going back to this idea of authenticity, Jenkin says how he can only write introverted characters as he himself is quite introverted, but it is the extroverted nature of Mary that brings another layer to the Volunteer, which Mark couldn’t initially see himself.
This prompts me to talk more on the background of Enys Men and how the idea actually came to be. I ask Mark whether it was an idea he already had, a visual cue, or something else entirely, to which he says it’s kind of a combination of all of those things at the same time. He talks of the standing stone that features in the film, which he sees fairly often, as being “transformative and almost cinematic at certain times of the day”, and for that reason he knew he would write a story that included it. He also briefly touches on a ghost story as being the origin of the film, which he told one Christmas (as is tradition in his town), and it was through this that the editing process began. Through the verbal retelling of this story, he learnt where the drama and excitement lie. As the film is fairly pronounced in its showcase of Cornish imagery, I ask about the importance of this and his identity as /someone who is Cornish. “I wanted to represent Cornish history, but not any sort of specific folklore”. This leads me to believe that Cornwall is only so prominent in his work as it is seemingly all he knows. He lives, works, and grew up in Cornwall, and so there is no way he could tell an authentic story set anywhere else. But the setting doesn’t have too much bearing on his work anyway. He mentions Bait and explains how that particular story, a story about gentrification, is happening all over the place, which is why it resonates with a large audience; “it just happens to be set in Cornwall.” But this is still a conscious decision, “I’m keen to sort of redress the balance of terrible screen portrayals of lots of artistic portrayals of Cornwall”. He says he wanted to put a “genuine authentic complicated Cornwall on screen rather than just a sort of bland backdrop”. When I ask him if he would set a film elsewhere, he tells me how the thing he’s currently working on has been suggested to be set elsewhere, but he doesn’t know. “[Cornwall] is a big place to explore, there’s more than enough to base a career on, and by going small you can go a lot deeper”.
The title of the film, Enys Men, is a Cornish translation of the English for “Stone Island”. I asked him why he couldn’t decide what to call the film, to which he said it was more a prompt from producer Denzil Monk. Jenkin wanted to call it “Stone Island” so that the film could exist in the lineage of other great British works with stone in the title such as Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, Ithell Colquhoun’s The Living Stone and the TV drama Children of the Stones. But it was Denzil who brought Mark back around to the Cornish name. This brings about a discussion on folk horror, which is how Enys Men is constantly described.
Jenkin talks about the Englishness of folk horror and the repealing of an idyllic time to uncover the darkness behind society. However, with Enys Men, Jenkin says: “I didn’t wanna allude to merrie olde England in Cornwall, because that version of England never existed here. I don’t think it ever existed anywhere, but people want to get back to this very dangerous idea of what England was.” This kind of pastoral society is the same one which exists in the unholy trinity of folk horror – Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man and The Blood on Satan’s Claw. When I question the point about The Wicker Man being Scottish, Jenkin makes the point that it feels English in its sensibility. But Jenkin doesn’t confine folk horror to be exclusively English: “it’s totally international and everybody’s got folk history and most countries have a cinema that’s associated with that”.
And this is what sets Enys Men apart from other British folk horror – it feels entirely removed from any sense of Englishness. The imagery of the fishermen, the miners and bal maidens is vital to this Cornish history that Jenkin wants to celebrate: “It’s a much healthier thing to define yourself by what you are rather than what you are not”.
Enys Men is released on DVD, Blu Ray and BFI Player on May 1.