Edward Rowe

Enys Men

15/01/23

Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh

Mark Jenkins made an impressive feature debut in 2019 with Bait – a story about the gentrification of a Cornish fishing village. Filmed in monochrome, using hand-cranked 16 mm stock, it had a distinctive look, akin to one of those old public information shorts that still pop up on Youtube. The film received a well-deserved BAFTA for ‘outstanding debut by a British director’.

Enys Men (Stone Island) is both more ambitious and more nebulous than its predecessor. Jenkins has progressed to colour, but even that is done on his own terms, retaining that grungy, scratchy look he’s known for. He’s also retained the services of Mary Woodvine, who played a wealthy, holiday-cottage owner in Bait. Here, she’s ‘The Volunteer,’ marooned on a remote island off the Cornish coast, tramping industriously around the rocky landscape in a vivid red waterproof jacket. Her daily task is to keep tabs on a bunch of rare flowers.

According to her daily log, it’s the year 1973; day after day, she steadfastly records the fact that nothing has changed. Not a thing. But it’s clear from early on that her life is shadowed by vivid memories and by a series of troubling hallucinations. Who is ‘The Girl’ (Flo Crowe), who hangs around the woman’s cottage, observing her routine? And who is the elusive ‘Boatman’ (Edward Rowe, another familiar face from Bait), who regularly contacts The Volunteer via a short wave radio, promising to bring supplies, most crucially petrol for the generator.

And then there are other characters, less easy to explain – silent milkmaids, singing children, and dirt-plastered tin miners – whose expressionless visages seem to stare across the centuries in silent accusation.

Enys Men is the kind of film that flings out plenty of questions but takes its own sweet time before offering just one or two answers. Indeed, the glacial pace and the constant use of repetition test my patience at times (as does the guy sitting next to me, who spends most of the evening looking at his phone) and it’s probably fair to say that Jenkins’ script needs a little more flesh on its bones to adequately fill the film’s one-hour-thirty-six-minute running time.

Still, for all that, this is an offering that will inspire plenty of conversation long after the final credits have rolled. Jenkins is a true auteur and, though Enys Men certainly won’t be for everyone, it’s nonetheless a unique viewing experience.

3. 6 stars

Philip Caveney

Bait

11/02/20

We think we’ve missed Bait but, as we walk past the Odeon on Lothian Road this morning, Philip notices there’s a screening at 11am. We’re not working today, and the sky is too full of sleet to make outdoor pursuits attractive. So in we go, down a spiral staircase and into a crowded cinema.

The film is about to start. We’re barely settled in our seats before the opening credits roll, and this foreboding tale begins. We find ourselves in a tiny Cornish village, where Martin (Edward Rowe) is a fisherman scratching a living without a boat. He works tirelessly, using a beach seine and a single lobster pot, selling his catch door-to-door, saving the cash payments in a tin marked ‘Boat.’ His brother, Steven (Giles King), has repurposed their late father’s vessel as a tourist tripper, but Martin wants no part in that enterprise. He’s resentful of the rich incomers, epitomised by Sandra and Tim (Mary Woodvine and Simon Shepherd), who’ve bought up all the pretty quayside properties so they can rent them out to others like themselves (‘One of them was so posh, I honestly thought he was German,’ says Wenna (Chloe Endean), a local teenage barmaid, frustrated by the hordes of outsiders, making her feel like a stranger in her own locale). The tension is palpable. Clearly something has to give.

It’s only six days since we saw The Lighthouse, and there are some obvious comparisons. Both are shot in black and white with a square-ish frame (albeit slightly different ratios). They’re both slow and brooding, too, with minimal dialogue and brutally realistic depictions of manual work. But Bait is a far superior film, at once broader in outlook and more particular.

It’s utterly compelling, the extended silences are excruciating, the characterisation painfully believable. The moneyed visitors are blinkered, ignorant of the devastation their presence has wrought on this small community, confident that their payments entitle them to what they want. But they’re not caricatures: we witness Sandra’s guilt as she glimpses what Martin is up against; we hear Tim’s justification about the business he’s bringing to the village he has grown to love. It’s just that the two ways of life are incompatible and, as ever, it’s the poor and working class who end up dispossessed.

Although the setting is contemporary, the film looks like a 1950s documentary, all scratchy  and old-fashioned, adding to the sense that what Martin wants is – irrevocably – in the past. His nephew, Neil (Isaac Woodvine), hankers after what is gone as well, although that doesn’t stop him hooking up with Sandra’s daughter, Katie (Georgia Ellory), much to her brother Hugo (Jowan Jacobs)’s dismay. The scene is set for a perfect storm…

Bait is a splendid example of low-budget independent film-making, and writer/director Mark Jenkin is clearly one to watch.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield