On a wind-lashed afternoon a few miles from Land’s End, I spot Boswens to the west of the wild, bumpy track. She is a standing stone, more than 2.2m (7ft) tall, situated alone on hard bumps of grass: some think there is a Neolithic tomb beneath her. From different angles, she looks like a trig point on the top of a mountain, the head of an axe or – most peculiarly – a person in profile.
Boswens’s looming presence is central to Enys Men (pronounced Ennis Mayne, meaning “stone island” in Cornish), the eagerly awaited film by Cornish writer, director and composer Mark Jenkin. His previous feature, Bait, was an edgy, 16mm black-and-white film about the tensions between Cornish villagers and tourists. Despite Jenkin having worked in film for more than 20 years, Bait saw him crowned as an overnight arthouse success, winning him the 2020 Bafta for outstanding debut by a British writer, director or producer. It was his first film to get major distribution.
Bait’s fans included Mark Kermode (who called it “one of the defining British films of the year, perhaps the decade”), Quentin Tarantino (who met Jenkin at the Baftas, after being impressed by a clip at the ceremony) and Bad Seeds musician Warren Ellis (who adored Jenkin’s soundtrack so much he called him up to say he couldn’t stop playing it).
Enys Men is a different beast to Bait: more abstract, filmed in highly saturated colour and set in a landscape of eerie coastal moorland in the spring of 1973. The film’s star, other than Boswens, is an unnamed wildlife volunteer played by Mary Woodvine, Jenkin’s real-life partner and a familiar face in his other films. Every day, the volunteer stops to drop a stone into the murky depths of an abandoned tin mine (which I also visit en route to meet Jenkin, nearly falling off its gale-blasted foundations), then notes down her observations of a rare, curious flower growing nearby.
Her life is quiet, punctuated by the occasional scratchy rumblings of a radio and the starter cord motor for her petrol generator, on which she is dependent for power. At bedtime she reads an environmental manifesto, Blueprint for Survival. Her relationship with Boswens is strange; the volunteer seems alone – but is she?
Making a horror film was a departure for Jenkin, whom I visit in his incredible Aladdin’s cave of a studio in an old primary school in the fishing port of Newlyn. Its walls are lined with dusty CDs, DVDs and video cassettes, alongside prints of boats and tin miners; its lower cupboards are filled with records, analogue tape machines and other film and music gear, including a Minimoog synthesiser. “If you’re wondering why there’s a door on the floor, it’s there for me to record footsteps,” Jenkin says, his wiry frame moving towards it to demonstrate. The sound in his recent films has been dubbed on afterwards, including speech, sound effects and compositions, all made by Jenkin himself.
Jenkin says he made a horror partly because of the reaction to Bait. “So many people said they felt it was going to tip over into being a horror at any moment, that there was a sense of foreboding or the uncanny. The more I thought about that, I realised they were right.” He wrote a pared-back, stark script for Enys Men in three, frenzied nights. “I then thought: ‘Shit, there’s no horror in it.’ Then I realised that horror is usually suggested by the form, not the content.”
He traces his finger round the rim of his coffee cup. “I mean, I’ve never liked horror films that start at the beginning, mess people up with slasher moments or jump cuts and then take them back to the beginning and safety. I like films that take you into the woods. You don’t know what the fuck is going on,” he smiles, devilishly, “then they leave you there.”
Born in Cornwall in 1976, Jenkin grew up when public information films were regularly played between children’s programmes on TV, warning kids of the dangers outdoors. “Still, when I see a pylon, I think: ‘Don’t fly a kite near that, Mark, or you’ll die.’” A lot of these films were formally experimental, and made by fascinating directors: his favourites include The Long Good Friday’s John Mackenzie’s Apaches, where children play on a farm with tragic consequences, and John Krish’s The Finishing Line, about a fantastical school sports day based around a set of train tunnels. “I loved their very unsubtle visual language and unsubtle sound design.”
Jenkin likes how things can haunt people without them knowing. When Enys Men premiered at Cannes and the London film festival this year, many fans noted Woodvine’s red, shiny jacket, deducing that it was a reference to a famous object in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now; Enys Men is also set in 1973, the year Roeg’s Daphne du Maurier adaptation was released. “I blindly walked into that,” Jenkin admits. “Mary was meant to be in yellow – I changed it so it didn’t look like a reference to Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist. But that’s what films are, on so many different levels, for people – they’re like puzzles to be solved. I love that.”
Jenkin has always made films about Cornwall, starting with his 2002 debut Golden Burn, which dramatised the tensions between tourists and the local community on the north Cornwall coast. Family dramas followed, with 2007’s The Midnight Drives, 2011’s Happy Christmas and his 2015 short Bronco’s House, about a Cornish couple struggling to find a home before the birth of their baby. Enys Men feels less political than his others at first, but then the past starts to haunt it, reminding us of the figures that keep our local industries going, and how easily they are forgotten.
Woodvine thinks that getting older connects us with the history of the places in which we live. When I meet her at home (the couple share it with her youngest son from a previous relationship), I spot an item from the Enys Men set, sitting above the living room doorframe – and jump. Woodvine laughs. A stalwart of British television, since the 1990s she has appeared in TV shows such as the comedy drama Pie in the Sky and the BBC classic Our Friends in the North. An ebullient presence, she is very different to the introverted character that she plays in Enys Men.
“As we get older, we start to connect the landscape with the people who lived in it,” she says. “Give me a 2,000-year-old pot that they found down the road now and I’m fascinated. As a child, I didn’t care. I suppose we’re seeing ourselves where we used to be years ago, and where we are now, realising that we’re all going to become history, too.”
Having a middle-aged female lead – Woodvine is 55 – in an eerie horror film feels hugely refreshing. The actor says she is ready for “the first person who tells me I’m brave not to wear makeup” – and comically bares her teeth. She often feels invisible in the industry. “When I’m going for jobs, I still have people telling me they need to see more of what I do – and I’ve been doing this, and lots of theatre, for more than 30 years.” The huge audience of middle-aged women who watch films is often neglected, too, she adds. “Maybe some of them will watch this, and go: ‘Oh my God, somebody in this genre that’s more like me.’”
It is also striking that her character in Enys Men doesn’t suffer the degradations that women often face in horror films. The volunteer remains a largely peaceful presence throughout, even when seven maidens start singing, or a scar on her stomach starts to show signs of other life, or when she responds to a figure singing in a church, played by her father, the 93-year-old actor John Woodvine.
They filmed him on the last day, she says smiling; her own past and that of her character all joining up in the most moving way. Enys Men also shows how the volunteer’s connection with Boswens, her life and Cornish history are forever interlinked in that mysterious land. “We were joining up all the gaps,” she says, smiling at the memory. “The pasts all coming together, thanks to that strange stone!”
Enys Men is in cinemas on 13 January with a preview Q&A tour from 2 January. The Cinematic DNA of Enys Men season [curated by director Mark Jenkin] runs at BFI Southbank & on BFI Player from 1–31 January.